Fiftieth Anniversary of James Dean's Death
Dispelling the myths
Candlelit procession, fireworks will celebrate James Dean's complex, misunderstood life
On the 50th anniversary of his death, citizens of James Dean’s hometown of Fairmount will honor his memory with a celebration of the actor, best known for playing angst-ridden, troubled youths.
David Loehr of The James Dean Gallery said the event should be a poignant one.
“It’s a major anniversary, the 50th anniversary,” Loehr said. “Every year, they have the service at the church, but this year there will be more with the fireworks and everything. The procession will be somber and sad, and the film will be more of a joyous tribute.”
The event will include a candlelight procession beginning at 6:30 p.m. today at the Friends Church in downtown Fairmount and ending at Dean’s gravesite. Following the procession, “James Dean: Forever Young,” a documentary about the actor’s life, will be shown in Playacres Park, the press release said.
The Fairmount Historical Museum played host to the James Dean Festival, an annual three-day event celebrating the actor’s life, last week. It featured bands, films and a James Dean look-alike contest.
Despite the star’s enduring fame, there is a great deal of misconception surrounding his life, particularly his years spent in Indiana, Ball State University Professor of Telecommunications Wes Gehring said.
Gehring, who wrote “James Dean: Rebel with a Cause,” a recent biography of the actor, said other books about the Dean tend to downplay his time in Fairmount.
“Even though there is a lot of literature out there, a lot of it is faulty,” Gehring said. “I found that Indiana gets trashed in the books or just isn’t mentioned.”
He said Dean gained confidence in Fairmount where he got a great deal of media attention in high school for his athletic and scholastic achievements.
“He made the newspaper front pages all the time,” Gehring said. “That might have made him think he could have done a lot of other stuff.”
Gehring said another common myth about Dean was that he was a morbid and unhappy individual.
“Within his circle of friends, James Dean was very funny,” Gehring said. “He was great at doing imitations. His friends hated it when he’d do imitations of them; he was so dead-on.”
Gehring said despite Dean’s image as a super-cool teenager in “Rebel Without a Cause,” the real actor was shy with extremely poor vision.
“He was blind without his glasses,” Gehring said, “That famous, distant look in his eye might have been just him not wearing glasses. His greatest acting skill might have been navigating a set.”
As for the actor’s sexuality, Gehring said there has been a lot of misinformation circulating in the media.
Gehring said there is no doubt Dean had homosexual relationships, but he was likely using them as a way of getting better roles, much like other stars of the period, such as Marilyn Monroe.
“If he used sex to advance his career, that’s not terribly surprising,” Gehring said. “At that time it was very common. At that point it did open some doors for him and got him into some places.”
This was in keeping with the actor’s personality, he said.
“Dean was a kind of an intellectual vampire,” Gehring said. “He would pull something out of somebody then basically move on. He didn’t have a lot of patience. He was a bit of a user who probably used the sexual card once or twice.”
Gehring said Dean’s passion didn’t end with furthering his acting career. He was nuts about photography and obsessed with bullfighting, but it was his intense fascination with race car driving that would result in his death.
“He was careless; an awful driver,” Gehring said. “On a track, he was a good, traditional driver, but put him in a normal driving situation, he was terrible.”
In popular culture, Dean’s death and the famous “Rebel without a Cause” chicken scene are often blended, giving the impression that the actor didn’t care if he lived or died.
The circumstances of Dean’s death have become larger than life. The brand new Porche 550 Spider racing down a stretch of dusty Califronia road with the ill-fated Dean at the wheel has become the stuff of legend. He was on his way to race in Salinas, Calif., when his car slammed into a truck driven by local farmer Donald Turnipseed.
“Dean had been busy filming ‘Giant,’ and he wasn’t allowed to race, so he was driving his car to the race,” Gehring said. “His mechanic, who was in the car during the accident, thought it was a good idea to drive the car to the race for practice.”
Gehring said if the weather had been different that day, Dean might have lived.
“If it had rained, they would have taken it to the race in a trailer instead of driving it there.”
He died 50 years ago today. To watch him on film is to grieve his passing all over again. No other actor had the power to make us feel this way.
James Dean has been dead for 50 years. That's hard to imagine, just as it's hard to imagine that he was ever alive, at least alive in the normal sense of occupying space and being in only one place at any given time. These mundane facts -- life, death, time, space -- are hard to reconcile with the whole Dean package, the talent, the legend and the iconography that have accumulated around his memory in the years since his fatal smash-up on Sept. 30, 1955.
He was in a race, and today he reaches the finish line. He should have been 74 years old and contemplating his mortality. Instead he is 50 years dead and entering classic immortality. He never heard the Beatles. He probably never heard of Jack Kennedy, read Jack Kerouac or listened to Elvis. He is from another time. He wouldn't recognize us, and though we think we know him, we don't really. Not completely. There's something there. We keep going back, and Dean remains, always giving, always revealing and always, somehow, elusive.
He is the only actor I know who's impossible to watch without knowing he's dead. You can watch Humphrey Bogart and forget about it. You can even watch Marilyn Monroe and forget about it. But with Dean, his being dead seems part of the point. To watch him is to simultaneously grieve him. There he is, so emotional, and he's dead; so young and beautiful, and he's dead. For most classic actors, death is just a passing phase, a speed bump that the public consciousness encounters and processes, on the way to seeing the actor as alive again, if only in art. But Dean's is the death that keeps on giving.
Maybe we're still not over it. We assume we are, until we see him again, in "East of Eden," "Rebel Without a Cause" or "Giant," and then the mix of feelings comes back -- the what-a-waste sadness, the fascination, the astonishment at witnessing a singular talent, and the exalted weirdness of seeing the beginning of something wonderful, the end of something wonderful and the flowering of something wonderful, all at the same time.
What happened to Dean is what everyone fears, at least fleetingly, in the wake of a great success: sudden disaster. "East of Eden," released in early 1955, had made Dean a major actor and a star on the rise. He had made two more films, yet to be released, and he died. Both of those performances merited Oscar nominations for best actor, and it's a mark of his accomplishment -- of how far he'd traveled in so short a time -- that he probably would have gotten those nominations had he lived. This wasn't sentimentality. Dean was that good, that soon.
It's all too tempting to lump Dean's life and his work together and regard him as some kind of pop culture masterpiece, but such thinking leads nowhere, making random events seem inevitable in retrospect. It's better to back up and consider Dean as a man who worked hard to become a good actor, who succeeded in his efforts and whose film work had meanings and consequences.
In many ways, he was lucky. At 18, he left home in Indiana, went to Hollywood and almost immediately started getting extra work in films and television. When he was 20, he moved to New York, got accepted to the Actors Studio, got theater work and right away started getting parts on the live TV dramas of the day. We tend to think of Dean's career as meager, just three films, but if his surviving TV appearances were ever released to DVD, we'd see that his recorded body of work was substantial, even remarkable for a guy who died at 24. He appeared on TV six times in 1952, 16 times in 1953, six times in 1954 and once in 1955, after the release of "East of Eden." In many of these, he had lead roles.
His talent was always there, but in his TV appearances, especially, we can see him trying things on and defining himself. In the quizzical way he'd look at people -- wincing and smiling, arrogant yet defensive -- we can see echoes of Marlon Brando, who was seven years his senior and already an established star. In his Hollywood career, he was still taking chances and experimenting, changing lines from take to take and adding bits of business. It helped that he worked with superior directors, veterans who had elicited brilliant acting performances over the years: Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray and George Stevens.
His three feature films are high-quality products, though in retrospect none is wholly satisfying as a James Dean movie. To fully get Dean, it's really necessary to see all three. "East of Eden" shows Dean as a young rebellious man in conflict with his father. "Rebel Without a Cause" finds him in his most archetypal mode, and the one that most seemed to express his inner self. But Dean plays a teenager in "Rebel," and he was already a man. In "Giant," he gets to play his own age -- and then ages another 20 or 25 years -- but he does so in an eccentric character part, so he isn't exactly like himself.
Really, you have to put those three movies in a blender, together with those photos of Dean walking down the street, to get the full Dean, the one who in himself personified the alternative 1950s, the jazz-club and beatnik '50s, the '50s that became, culturally, the '60s.
When we take him as a whole, it becomes clear that, partly by design and partly by happenstance, Dean brought a lot into this world. He made weakness cool. He made emotion cool. He made being artistic cool. He made being sensitive cool. He made being tortured cool. Dean was the facade of manhood, crumbling; he was aching sensitivity under a hard shell and a leather jacket, 14 years before Woodstock came and the warrior disappeared, leaving only the weenie in his wake.
Years before anybody talked about a generation gap, he embodied it. Not that Dean wanted to kill everybody over 30; on the contrary, he wished everybody over 30 would stop being dead. He expressed the pain of a young man anticipating his spiritual execution at the hands of society. Likewise, a generation before Robert Bly wrote about it in "I Am John," Dean played men starving for male companionship, for some kind of father connection and for some way of living in the world that did not represent a deadening compromise with the inner self. His work was a brief for a more humane vision of life.
Everybody who writes about Dean ends up writing in this way: We begin in first gear, soon start speeding and end up losing contact with the earth. It has all to do with Dean, not his death, but what he did with his life. His work remains pure, 50 years later, because of his almost naive faith in the importance of emotion, of the sanctity of the inner self. That faith inspired a generation of actors. It might have inspired a generation, period.
What would it have been like to have an artist with that conviction and intensity working in the most popular art form for the last 50 years? Would movies be a little different? Would Dean have gotten cynical? Would he have been corrupted? Would he have gained 100 pounds like Brando? Would he have gained another 100 pounds like Brando? Would he have given up movies eventually? Would he have kept his spark, like Dennis Hopper? Would he have become a director, like Clint Eastwood? Would he have played cops? Would he have starred in love stories? And what would he have been like in the 1960s? And in the 1970s?
You can find the answers to those questions in the same history that tells you all about Bobby Kennedy's two terms as president, George Gershwin's symphonies and John Lennon's 1981 world tour -- a good book, but one not available on this planet. The only safe thing to say is that if this young man died at 23 instead of 24, we'd have all been a little poorer for it.