Looking back at the James Dean’s enduring legend 64 years after his untimely death
The Last Race Of James Dean
*Today marks the anniversary of James Dean’s death. Like a lot of celebrities of his time, James Dean always carried around a certain aura of mystery that endures to this day. This might be also because of the fact he died young and as we all now know, that is a certain morbid formula to eternity that allows people like Dean to be remembered forever and a subject of endless books, movies, documentaries, and articles, just like the one you are reading. Why James Dean, that had such a short career, is still relevant to this day is what we will try to explore this article.
James Dean was born James Byron Dean in Marion, Indiana on February 8th, 1931. Dean was never a usual child, as almost an omen to the adult, he’d became later. Going through the loss of his mother as a child and having a difficult relationship to his father, he was raised on a farm with his aunt and uncle in Fairmount. Defying the religious environment that surrounded him, his awake to sexuality was alleged with a pastor with whom he lost his virginity according to some friends to whom he admitted it. The rest of the story, pretty much everyone knows. After finishing high school in Fairmount he moved to California where he pursued his acting career, having had several roles both in plays and small TV appearances such as in a Pepsi commercial. He moved to New York where he enlisted in the famous Actors Studio and studied method acting under the direction of Lee Strasberg. Dean got his first big break in 1954 after he was cast by Elia Kazan for the role of Cal Trask in “East Of Eden”, gained notoriety for his intense performance as well as for his good looks that turned him into the next Marlon Brando, one of Dean’s favorite actors and also, occasional lover. In 1955 he played the role of Jim Stark in “Rebel Without A Cause” by Nicholas Ray, which would cement the iconic image that endures to this day and open a new chapter in Hollywood movies on what concerns to teenage movies. “The Giant” his final movie, directed by George Stevens saw Dean firming himself as the next Hollywood giant when he got a supporting role next to Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Dean portrayed the Texan Jett Rink, a ranch hand that becomes wealthy after striking oil. Dean died while the movie was still in production but left a memorable role to this day, more so than the one of Rock Hudson.
First of all, the big difference between James Dean and, let’s say, Marlon Brando, is that Dean’s life remains an unfinished book, something that was never fully completed, while Brando had a long run, a long life, and closure to it. Both talented, both good-looking, both very similar but both also very different. Brando remains relevant, remains an icon to this day, and holds a huge significance to Pop Culture, but Brando also holds many lives through all the roles he portrayed across the years, decades. Dean only made three movies. But three huge significant movies from that era. Some may say the reason why those three movies are still considered masterpieces of 20th century cinema is that Dean stared on it. All of those three movies are outstanding at their own right. Three hugely influential directors, Kazan, Ray, Stevens, and perfectly cast for all three. Could those movies though had the same impact if Cal Trask was portrayed by Brando or Jett Rink by Paul Newman? Maybe so, but would definitively not hold a place in our imaginary like they do today. And that is all because of James Dean. This is one of the reasons Dean’s work remains influential and relevant to this day.
He knew he was good looking, he knew exactly what to wear and how to look, to become attractive, intriguing and smart both to men and women.
Then there is the “icon”, the photograph, the poster, and the poser, however, you may or want to call it. Dean had a smart eye for fashion and looks. He knew he was good-looking, he knew exactly what to wear and how to look, to become attractive, intriguing and smart both to men and women. He knew well how to activate either a 30-year-old gay man or 50-year-old woman into an erotic and believable fantasy. Many times he did it so, to the point that was not a fantasy, and many times he used it to gain something in return, without any guilty conscience. But he also knew how to behave like a sweet innocent young man that teenage girls would dream of having as a boyfriend, and to behave like a cool, swaging young rebel guy that teenage boys looked upon and tried to imitate. Dean’s fame rose so fast that still in his short lifetime, all of these factors gained him global fame. He got too big, too fast, and fast was how he liked to live, fearless of anything,
James Dean was not by any means a common man. Earlier in this article, it was referred that he, such as other movie stars from the Hollywood golden age, keeps an aura of mystery, and certainly in his case mystery was something that Dean had and knew how to keep to this day. There are endless rumors, endless stories about who really was James Dean, the man. His sexuality has been subject of many discussions. For those who knew him closely, he was omnisexual, not bisexual, not gay, not straight, but omnisexual. A form of sexuality that these days remains and is more relevant than ever. Dean had male and female lovers, some famous, some anonymous. He got seriously engaged a couple of times, but, given what we allegedly know about his life, was he really serious on those commitments? There is also the darker side, the “human ashtray” as some people would call Dean in more shady gay bars, or walking down the streets of San Francisco crossdressed while observed by friends, pretending to be a street hooker to the cars that passed by. Then there is Dean the “stalker” who would leave messages on Montgomery Clift’s phone or chased Marlon Brando, that ended up using Dean like a personal toy, which didn’t cause him any discomfort, again allegedly. But, there was also the broken heart Romeo who suffered after the woman he considered to be the love of his life married Vic Damone, all though as he said back then “I wouldn’t marry her unless I could take care of her properly. And I don’t think I’m emotionally stable enough to do so right now.”, the intellectual Dean that would read The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley in his Sherman Oaks, San Fernando Valley home, the sculptor Dean who’d build sculptures with his hands, the loner Dean photographed walking alone in the streets of New York, the racer Dean that drove fast his motorcycle and Porsche. We could write lots of paragraphs of all the Dean’s that existed inside of him. He was complex, and the complex is always relevant. The racer Dean got the best of them all in the end.
The Last Race
James Dean died on September 30th 1955 at 24 years of age while racing on his Porsche Spyder. Ever since, the myth, legend hasn’t stopped growing. Today, 64 years after his untimely death, he still impacts the way we look at fashion and imagery, being through the timeless look of the rebel with the red jacket, Levis jeans and boots or the hot sweaty cowboy, messy hair with golden brown hair locks and with a Chesterfield (his favorite brand of cigarettes) hanging in his lips. His impact on acting is still very much present, always a reference to many starting up young actors that observe his method acting on those three masterpieces he left, and since 1955 all still trying to be the next James Dean. It will never happen, we all know that. And not just because we are all unique and one of a kind, but also, because Dean was a product of himself, he was his own alter-ego, he knew where he was standing and maybe, where he was going. He will always remain an unfinished book. He lived fast, he died young and he left a good looking heritage to Pop Culture that hardly will die out, that is why his legend still endures.
Watch A James Dean TV Interview from July 1955
*Originally published on Pop Expresso in 2017
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