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Sunday, May 1, 2011


Hollywood's Favorite Rebel: James Dean

Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy... Why'd ya' do it? Over fifty years later, your absence still aches. The whole trouble with legends is that their reputation often eclipses their talent. Just as Marilyn and Elvis tend to disappear behind all of the hullabaloo said about them, so too has Dean become more of a symbol than a human being. I've often been asked, "What's the big deal? Was he really that good?" I reply with a resounding slap and a "You bet your sweet life!" Yes, he was good. My God, was he good. The legacy he left behind is the result of an astounding and almost electric talent, one that set him completely apart from his contemporaries, and history has maintained his power. When he died, many would draw comparisons between his death and that of Rudolph Valentino. The effect was equally profound. As my grandmother Mary Lou put it, "I cried my eyes out." So, to prove my point, ask yourself: What celebrity today would I mourn with a like passion were his life to be suddenly snuffed out? Go ahead, I'm waiting...

Dean woos Julie Harris and the rest of America in his first 
breakthrough role in East of Eden.

You see? James was special. While the eruption of the method actor was spearheaded by the dual force of Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, Dean's effect was perhaps even more poignant simply due to his age. It was his youth more than anything else that set him apart. He wasn't that foreign adversary called the "adult"-- someone that kids merely dressed up and pretended to be-- he was the angst ridden young man that they were. He represented their transition: the awkward stage when adolescence strives to become maturity. He was the being we all once were, and whom we had to survive, to reach adulthood. His embodiment of the confusion, rage, and rebellion that was suddenly being awakened in the dormant nuclear family society was one that every teen in American could relate to. He gave adolescence a face and a voice. His performances were both loud and silent, carefully cultivated, yet intensified by sudden bursts of improvisation. While Brando is attributed with creating a physical energy that enveloped the atmosphere, and Clift is the man who more fully brought to the surface the complications of inner emotion, Jimmy was the most adept at using his environment-- becoming a part of it, tangling with it, and moving through it as his own organism. There is not one piece of film where he does not look completely at home, completely attached to his surroundings, even if he is pounding his fists against it. He rests his chin on a wall, rolls on the ground, casually plucks leaves from a tree, or soaks in a burst of oil from the very earth he is rooted to all with equal ease.

Dean and Corey Allen prepare to play a game of chicken, 
because "You gotta do somethin'."

Oddly, in his personal life, Dean seemed to be rooted to nothing and no one except his own mania. His eccentricities were merely a part of what made him so alluring. Just how calculated his manner was remains a topic of controversy. His psyche suffered an early fracture with the premature passing of his mother, whom he adored, when he was but 9-years-old. Just as Gable would endure the ongoing saga of the little boy lost after his own mother's death, so too would James seem to be on a perpetual quest for the severed maternal love for which there is no replacement. Despite the fact that he would mature under the care of his loving aunt and uncle on their Indiana farm, he too would feel the eternal burn of abandonment on the part of his father, who sent him away initially because he was unable to care for him alone and more finitely when he was drafted into the war. Born of this dual loss was the classic Dean penchant for chronic searching. He became a frenetic and curious boy who was fascinated by everything, constantly on the move, competing and excelling at various sports, and raising Hell by speeding around town on his first motorbike. An early and innate gift for mimicry, which kept his peers rolling with laughter, would naturally translate to acting. He never really found within all of these things what he was looking for, but still he continued the hunt.

The classic image of Dean's cool: a car and a cigarette.

His ambidextrous nature would continue into his young adulthood, and while acting became the one thing that he remained solidly faithful to, his insatiable need for information made him thoroughly knowledgeable on a great many subjects: athletics, art, music, foreign languages, etc. He became an unpredictable creature. He would appear at a friend's doorstep with his drums, perform an interlude for a few hours, then abruptly disappear-- usually through the window. He would be full of smiles one moment, joking and laughing, and then become sullen and distant the next. There were two Deans: you either loved him and his idiosyncrasies, or you loathed him and his outlandish tomfoolery. Actually, there were more than two of him... Dean wore so many faces and represented so many different things to his friends that each knew him in a different way. This contributed to the continuing confusion as to just who he really was, including sexually. Friend Martin Landau knew one Dean and swore up and down that "This guy was not gay." College roommate and lifelong friend William Bast knew another Dean and claims that the two had an intermittent sexual relationship over the years. The nature of Dean's relationship with the Rev. James DeWeerd as a child also raises questions, as does the recently released revelation he made to the late Elizabeth Taylor, who claimed he confided to her his molestation by a minister as a youth. On the one hand, you have his deeply romantic love affair with Pier Angeli-- who is popularly recalled as the "one who got away" and whose wedding Dean sat outside, fuming on his motorcycle. On the other, there are the claims of Rogers Brackett-- who acted as a sort of patron for Dean when he was starting out and too claims that the two had a damaging and complicated affair. It is hard to find the clear and definitive line of truth. The theories are as various as the theorizers: he was a homosexual in denial or he was a bisexual that preferred women. People tend to imagine the Dean that they would have preferred. 

One of JD's goals as an actor was to make a Western, a 
hope fulfilled in George Stevens's Giant.

But perhaps this was all part of his plan. In any event, it had no impact on the public's worship. Whatever his sexual nature, he was masculine enough to maintain male respect and adulation, and sensitive and beautiful enough to continue making young girls swoon. His image, the James Dean he created in life and left behind in death, was part truth and part illusion. He tested his audiences in his private life as much as he did on the screen. His crazy shenanigans-- pulling his shirt over his head while he was eating to detract/attract attention, or his casually strolling into a stranger's home to help himself to a sandwich-- were things that he did consciously and unconsciously. He added to his own mystique, later becoming ensnared by the very enigma he had created. He once turned to a friend after being rude to a studio-head and asked, "If you ever figure out why I just did that, tell me will ya'?" Being his friend was, in fact, a challenge. He pulled stunts to push those closest away, trying to see who would remain faithful no matter what he pulled. To this day, no one can say with any certainty who the Hell James Dean was. He remains as the proverbial tree in the woods-- making even those who knew him best sometimes wonder if he even existed at all.

Dean and mechanic Rolf Weutherich prepare for Dean's last drive 
in "Little Bastard."

In the end, it became too complicated for James Dean to be James Dean. His insatiable love for acting, which took him from Los Angeles to New York and back again, had but one foe for the number one place in his heart: racing. Dean loved to drive. Not only did the speed fulfill his craving for pulsating adrenaline and invigorating stimuli, but it gave him escape. Behind the wheel, he was focused, in control, and away from both the madness of the world and his own uncertainties, insecurities, and emotions. It gave him strength, to defy and conquer danger at once. As in all things he tried, he excelled at driving. Many seasoned racers remarked on his "steel hands" and imperturbable focus, but most importantly his total lack of fear. Ironically, he was safer on the fiery and foreboding dirt paths of the racetrack than he was on the open road. A freak accident in 1955 on route 46 claimed the life of a man that fate alone had the power to kill. Herein do we find the popular slogans: "Live fast, die young" and "Too fast to live, too young to die." Dean would have been irked by this legacy. The youths who look up to him, who seek to emulate him by being "complicated," "dark," and "tortured," those who worship his offspring-- Morrison, Cobain, Phoenix-- by mirroring his tragedy, do not understand his passions. Dean hungered for life not death. While he openly admitted an uncanny premonition that he would not make it to thirty, he also was quoted as saying, (when questioned about his daredevil ways), that he would never purposely endanger his life, because he had too much to live for, too much he had yet to do, too much he wanted to learn. Dean was far from "done," and we were not yet finished with him when he was abruptly taken. Sadly, legends can only be born in death. 

Dean became good friends with photographer Dennis Stock, who took this "silly" photo, 
which would become morbidly popular after Jimmy's death.

The legend lives on in the many faces he left behind: the lost puppy you want to nurture, the fidgety rebel who makes you want to defy, and the beam of irrepressible sex appeal that makes you want to do many, many things.

~ ~ ~

In college, one of my professors told me that the scene in which Sal Mineo looks into his locker mirror in Rebel Without A Cause, and sees James Dean's face reflected back at him, is the most written about moment in cinematic history. I believe it. I believe it, because it is perhaps one of the most honest moments ever captured on film. All of us look onto the movie screen waiting to see little pieces of ourselves reflected back, and we look for them in the most beautiful of Hollywood's faces. Since Dean remains one of our most cherished idols, we to this day still look at him and see ourselves. He exteriorized our true demons and yet delivered his performances with a grace, a swagger, and a charm that we too hoped to possess. He was the man of our dreams and the self of our dreams. In trying to become all human beings, he succeeded only in making us want to be like him. He was just cool. Really, damn cool. Had he survived, there's no telling how much further his talent could have taken himself and us. His career, his human interpretation, his voyage had just begun. Oh Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy... Why'd ya do it?

James reveals himself as yet another Christ figure, here with 
Elizabeth Taylor in Giant.

Happy May.


  1. Great theme, great posting! Yes, Jimmy Dean was a real questioning mark... but he left an unperishable footstep in this thing called Cinema. A large one...