Dean, James (1931-1955)
Dean, James (1931-1955)
Perhaps no film actor is as emblematic of his own era as is James Dean of his. Certainly, no screen-idol image has been as widely disseminated—his brooding, enigmatic, and beautiful face has sold everything from blue jeans to personal computers, and 45 years after his death, his poster-size image was still gracing the bedroom walls of millions of teenage girls and beaming down on the customers in coffee bars throughout America and Europe.
Whether or not he intended to take it to its logical and tragic conclusion, James Dean's credo was to live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. Thus, his legendary legacy is comprised of only three major motion pictures (though he had small roles in three others prior to this), a handful of seldom-seen television dramas, and an admired Broadway stage performance seen only by a relative handful of people. But Dean, like Brando whom he idolized, was able to blend his life and his art so seamlessly that each seemed an extension of the other. And he harbored a long-festering psychic wound, a vulnerability that begged for redemption. It was the omnipresent wounded child in Dean's persona that made him so appealing, and gave his acting such visceral impact.
Born in Marion, Indiana, James Dean spent his early childhood in Los Angeles where his father worked as a dental technician for the Veterans Administration. His mother, Mildred, overly protective of her son and with a preternatural concern for his health, died of cancer when he was nine, and he was sent to live with his father's sister in Fairmount, Indiana. There, he developed the hallmark traits of an orphan: depression, an inexplicable feeling of loneliness, and antisocial behavior. But Dean's childhood was bucolic as well as tormented. His aunt and uncle doted on him, and nurtured his natural talents. Good at sports, particularly basketball (despite his short stature), and theater, the bespectacled teenager nevertheless required a reputation for rebelliousness that made him persona non grata with the parents of his classmates—particularly those of female students who, even then, were fascinated by this mysterious, faintly melancholy youth. Dean was also attractive to older men, and it was a local preacher in Fairmount who first sensed the boy's emotional vulnerability, grew fond of him, and showered him with favors and attention. This quality in the young Dean was a dubious asset that he would exploit to his advantage frequently over the course of his brief career.
Dean never entertained the idea of any career but acting. Upon graduating, he rejoined his father in Los Angeles and attended Santa Monica City College and UCLA before dropping out to pursue acting full-time. According to his fellow drama students at the latter institution, he showed little talent. After quitting UCLA, he lived hand to mouth, picking up bit parts on television and film. His acting may have been lackluster, but he had a pronounced gift for evoking sympathy, and it was during a lean stretch that he acquired his first patron. Dean had taken a job parking cars at a lot across from CBS and it was there that he met the director Rogers Brackett, who took a paternal, as well as a sexual, interest in the young man. Eventually Dean moved in with Brackett and was introduced to a sophisticated homosexual milieu. When Brackett was transferred to Chicago in 1951, he supplied Dean with the necessary money and connections to take a stab at New York.
There was nothing predestined about James Dean's eventual success. He went about just as any other young actor, struggling to eat, relying on the kindness of others, and changing addresses like he changed his clothes. At first he was timid; legend has it that he spent his first week either in his hotel room or at the movies, but just as he had a flair for cultivating older men, he had an impeccable ear for self-promotion and slanting his stories for maximum advantage. Fortunately, his relationship with Brackett gave him entrée to an elegant theater crowd that gathered at the Algonquin and, helped by Brackett's influential contacts, Dean found television work and an agent. In the summer of 1952, he auditioned for, and was accepted into, the prestigious Actors Studio. Once again, the Dean mystique has distorted the facts to fit the legend: he never appeared in a studio production and his fellow members remembered him only as a vague presence, uncommunicative and sullen.
From a purely practical point of view, Dean's casual morals gave him one advantage over his struggling contemporaries. He was not averse to peddling his sexual favors to further his career, and his first real break came from his seduction of Lemuel Ayers, a successful businessman who invested money in the theater, and helped secure the aspiring actor a role in a forthcoming Broadway play called See the Jaguar. The play folded after four performances, but 1954 brought him The Immoralist, adapted from André Gide's novel, in which he played the North African street Arab whose sexual charisma torments a male married writer struggling with homosexual tendencies. Dean's own sexual charisma was potent, and his performance attracted notice, praise, and Hollywood. By the end of the following year, 1955, he had starred in East of Eden for Elia Kazan—mentor to Montgomery Clift and Brando—and, under Nicholas Ray's direction, became the idolized voice of a generation as the Rebel Without a Cause.
Many writers have attributed James Dean's winning combination of vulnerability and bravado to his mother's early death; certainly, he seemed aware of this psychic wound without being able rectify it. "Must I always be miserable?" he wrote to a girlfriend. "I try so hard to make people reject me. Why?" Following his Broadway success, he abandoned his gay friends, as if in revenge for all the kindness they had proffered, and when he was cast in East of Eden, he broke away from his loyal patron, Rogers Brackett, then fallen on hard times. When a mutual friend upbraided him for his callousness, his response was, "I though it was the john who paid, not the whore." But to others, Dean seemed unaffected by success. He was chimerical, yet remarkably astute in judging how far (and with whom) he could take his misbehavior. This trait fostered his Jekyll-and-Hyde image—sweet and sensitive on the one hand, callous, sadistic, and rude on the other.
The actor's arrival in Hollywood presented a problem for studio publicists unsure how to market this unknown, uncooperative commodity. They chose to focus on inflating Dean's sparse Broadway credentials, presenting him as the New York theater actor making good in Hollywood. In New York, Dean had been notorious for skulking sullenly in a corner at parties and throwing tantrums and, although he could be perfectly delightful given sufficient motivation, he was not motivated to appease the publicists. What were taken for Dean's Actors Studio affectations—his ill-kempt appearance, slouching, and mumbling—was actually his deliberate attempt to deflate Hollywood bombast and pretension. The reigning queens of Hollywood gossip, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, both took umbrage at Dean's behavior. His disdain for Hollywood was so overt that, before East of Eden was even complete, he had managed to set much of the entertainment press squarely against him. East of Eden, however, made a huge impact, won Dean an Academy Award nomination and launched him into the stratospheric stardom that was confirmed later the same year with the success of Rebel Without a Cause. In both films, the young actor played complex adolescents, alienated from the values of the adult world around them—tormented, haunted by an extraordinarily mature recognition of pain that comes from being misunderstood and needing to be loved. The animal quality he brought to conveying anguish and frustration struck a chord in the collective psyche of 1950s American youth, and his almost immediate iconic status softened the scorn of journalists. His on-screen charisma brought forgiveness for his off-screen contemptuousness, and his uncouth mannerisms were suddenly accorded the indulgence shown a naughty and precocious child.
Stardom only exacerbated Dean's schizoid nature, which, paradoxically, he knew to be central to his appeal. When a young Dennis Hopper quizzed him about his persona, he replied, "… in this hand I'm holding Marlon Brando, saying, 'Fuck you!' and in the other hand, saying, 'Please forgive me,' is Montgomery Clift. 'Please forgive me.' 'Fuck you!' And somewhere in between is James Dean." But while playing the enfant terrible for the press, he reacted to his overnight fame with naïve wonder, standing in front of the theater unnoticed in his glasses and watching the long queues forming for East of Eden with delight. That was Dean's sweet side. He exorcised his demons through speed, buying first a horse, then a Triumph motorcycle, an MG, and a Porsche in short order. He delighted in scaring his friends with his reckless driving. Stories of Dean playing daredevil on his motorcycle (which he called his "murdercycle") are legion. Racing became his passion, and he managed to place in several events. His antics so alarmed the studios that a "no-ride" clause was written into his contract for fear that he would be killed or disfigured in the middle of shooting.
With the shooting of Rebel completed, he made his third film, co-starring with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in Giant. As Jet Rink, the graceless farm laborer who strikes oil and becomes a millionaire, Dean was able to play to type for the first half of the film, but was seriously too young to meet the challenge of the second half in which Rink has become a dissipated, middle-aged tycoon. Nonetheless, he collected a second Oscar nomination—but was no longer alive to hear the announcement. On September 30, 1955, almost immediately after the completion of filming, James Dean and a mechanic embarked for a race in Salinas in the actor's new Porsche Spyder. Fate, in the form of a Ford, struck the tiny car head-on, breaking Dean's neck. He was dead at 24 years old.
Part of James Dean's enduring allure rests in the fact that he was dead before his two biggest films were complete. His legacy as an artist and a man is continually debated. Was he gay or straight? Self-destructive or merely reckless? Perhaps he didn't know himself, but doom hung about him like a shroud, and it came as no surprise to many of his colleagues when they learned of his fatal accident. Elia Kazan, upon hearing the news, sighed "That figures." After his death, his friend Leonard Rosenman commented, "Jimmy's main attraction was his almost pathological vulnerability to hurt and rejection. This required enormous defenses on his part to cover it up, even on the most superficial level. Hence the leather-garbed motorcycle rider, the tough kid having to reassure himself at every turn of the way by subjecting himself to superhuman tests of survival, the last of which he failed." Whether Dean had a death wish or simply met with an unfortunate accident will continue to be batted around for eternity; there are as many who will attest to his self-destructiveness as to his hope for the future. So, was it mere bravado or a sense of fatalism that made him remark to his friend and future biographer John Gilmore: "You remember the movie Bogie made—Knock on Any Door —and the line, 'Live fast, die young, have a good-looking corpse?' Shit, man, I'm going to be so good-looking they're going to have to cement me in the coffin."
Alexander, Paul. Boulevard of Broken Dreans: The Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean. New York, Plume, 1994.
Gilmore, John. Live Fast—Die Young: Remembering the Short Life of James Dean. New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1997.
Holley, Val. James Dean, The Biography. New York, Saint Martin's Press, 1995.
Howlett, John. James Dean: A Biography. London, Plexus, 1975.
McCann, Graham. Rebel Males: Clift, Brando, & Dean. NewBrunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1993.
Riese, Randall. The Unabridged James Dean: His Life and Legacy from A to Z. Chicago, Contemporary, 1991.