Later this month we reach the 59th anniversary of James Dean’s untimely death, and this week, Pacific Film Archive is presenting new digital restorations of East of Eden , Rebel Without a Cause , and Giant , the canonical trilogy of sorts that define his brief but enduring film career. James Dean is so thoroughly iconic, so intricately woven into the fabric of Western pop culture, that an article-length summation of his life and work would be pure folly. Instead, here are a trio of book-based angles on the actor and the man-myth.
- While most books about Dean don’t really spill the tea about the hothouse on-set atmosphere of Rebel Without a Cause , Gavin Lambert’s moving and at times revelatory biography Natalie Wood: A Life presents it in matter-of-fact first-person terms, with candid commentary from Dennis Hopper.
A lover of Ray’s who also worked as his assistant, the British-born Lambert—a novelist and the director of 1954’s ahead-of-its-time Another Sky —wryly and compassionately renders Ray’s affair with Natalie Wood, who also was involved with Hopper, while providing a window into Ray’s and Dean’s close and sometimes combative working relationship, which (perhaps by Ray’s design) sometimes verged on Dean taking control of the film’s directorial duties:
To Dennis Hopper, it often seemed that Dean was “the real director of Rebel, and controlled every scene he was in.” To Natalie, it seemed that Nick got everything he wanted from Dean because “he absolutely understood him, and Jimmy reminded Nick of himself a great deal.” I remember Nick saying the same thing to me a year or two later; but similarities can create fiction as well as rapport. Dennis remembered that Nick once called “Cut!” when Dean thought it premature, and the actor turned on him. “I’m the only one who says fucking ‘Cut’ here!”
…Another crosscurrent developed when Sal Mineo echoed the character he played by becoming strongly attracted to Dean. Both Dean and Nick were aware of it, and Nick, who was also aware of Dean’s bisexuality, asked him to “use” it in their scenes together. Accordingly, Dean told Mineo to “look at me the way I look at Natalie,” and a subtle erotic tension develops when the screen threesome spend a night in the deserted mansion. Mineo’s Plato glances longingly at Dean’s Jim Stark, who gives him a quick smile an undercurrent of flirtation, while Natalie’s Judy is too involved with Jim to notice.
- Amongst book portraits of Dean, there is generally a wide divide between the chaste, hetero-centric conventional ones, the best of which might be David Dalton’s James Dean: The Mutant King , and ones with a personal stake, or more lurid intentions. Heavily researched by a longtime Dean fan club member, Dalton’s book is especially strong at delivering a portrait of Dean’s Midwestern hometown of Fairmount, Indiana. With a bit of stretching, Dalton identifies Fairmount as “the birthplace of the hamburger, the car, the airplane, and the ice cream cone.” If Fairmount is key to the formation of another great American invention—James Dean—then Dalton is also committed to exploring the quirks of fate, in particular, the untimely death of Dean’s mother, that caused someone so unique to spring from the quintessence of normalcy.
Other books, most notably John Gilmore‘s Laid Bare and Live Fast, Die Young , go straight for the gay content of Dean’s life. (Dean himself snapped a mirror-reflection photo of Gilmore—then a dead ringer for Tony Curtis—that is ripe with unbuttoned-shirt eroticism.) Under the aegis of biography and autobiography, Gilmore’s writings have rendered a sexual encounter with Dean in vivid detail, while also stressing that Dean was essentially a loner with a “distant craziness” in his eyes, someone not easy to pigeonhole into any particular identity.
Prone to spinning fantastic or sordid myth-making from a grain of truth, in Hollywood Babylon Kenneth Anger portrays Dean as a full-fledged masochist, going so far as to claim that he’d earned the nickname “The Human Ashtray,” thanks to a proclivity for having lit cigarettes snuffed on his skin. In a pair of biographies defined in part by the relative repression and candor of their times in which they were published, 1956’s James Dean: A Biography and 2005’s Surviving James Dean , the screenwriter William “Bill” Bast renders the actor, though he only reveals the full complexity and emotional depth of their five-year relationship in the more recent book.
Some of the most evocative books about Dean contain few words. During his short life, the magnetic actor nurtured strong bonds with men who documented him in a wide variety of settings, in poses ranging from studied to (less often) spontaneous. One could argue that LIFE photographer Dennis Stock’s shots of Dean—collected in a trio of hard-to-find monographs, 1956’s Portrait of a Young Man: James Dean , 1978 and 1987’s James Dean Revisited , 2005’s James Dean: Fifty Years Ago —are as central to his iconic image as the film visions of Ray, Elia Kazan, and certainly George Stevens.
- While Dean is intrinsically connected to the rebel mythos of rock ‘n’ roll, it tends to be in a way that affirms American conventions and norms, rather than his slippery “outsider” status, particularly in sexual terms. Still, eventual Who Killed Teddy Bear? star Sal Mineo (whose image in that film might be a black-and-white precursor for Bobby Kendall in Pink Narcissus ) rates a mention in the comprehensive romantic catalogue of Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs , while Dean has inspired another iconic, sexually taciturn hysteria-magnet, Morrissey, on multiple occasions.
Before he achieved much sought-after fame as singer and lyricist for the Smiths, the then-threadbare-poor Mancunian penned a quickie bio of Dean titled James Dean is Not Dean , first published by Babylon Books as James Dean is Not Dead in 1983 to cash in on Morrissey’s notoriety as much as Dean’s. During the era of The Queen is Dead , Morrissey added Dean to his gallery of handsome record “cover stars,” using a tinted image of the actor on the cover of the single “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” Morrissey’s best-known act of Dean homage is Tim Broad’s video for the singer’s debut solo single “Suedehead,” built from a trip to Fairmount to dutifully and somewhat stiffly recreate some of Dennis Stock’s LIFE images of the actor. (By then, Morrissey was no stranger to impersonation: after Terence Stamp threatened to sue him for using his image in William Wyler’s The Collector for the cover of the early Smiths single “What Difference Does It Make,” Morrissey simply recreated the image with himself in Stamp’s place.)
In the recently-published Autobiography , Morrissey refers fondly to his friendship with Dean’s East of Eden co-star (and Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come cover star) Richard Davalos, whose relationship with Dean wasn’t so rosy by some accounts. He also recounts his trip to Fairmount with a flair for dramatic conflict since disputed online by at least one member of Dean’s family. But one might as well let Morrissey have the last word—lord knows, he would want it. Reader, meet author:
Another reason why Dean became the screen’s archetypal rebel-hero was perhaps because his own personality and lifestyle were not unlike that of those he portrayed. His spasms of animal frenzy (onscreen and off), his turbulent and ill-disciplined life, gained him the reputation of a modern misfit. Those that knew him well (and few did) claimed he was engulfed in insecurities. His disturbing childhood was never over-dramatized. He most certainly had an obsession with death, and of it said: “It’s the only thing left to respect.”
Johnny Ray Huston has written about film, music, and visual art for 25 years at various newspapers, magazines, and websites, including a 14-year stint as Arts Editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian when it was an independent publication. He has co-created movies and put together film programs shown at Artists’ Television Access, Yerba Buena Center of the Arts, and the San Francisco International Film Festival, and written and made collage work for exhibitions at [2nd Floor Projects] in San Francisco.