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Me and my Spyder

Rebel, The Life and Legend of James Dean by Donald Spoto HarperCollins, pounds 18; James Dean yearned for love, but courted dislike.
Nowadays James Dean is the stuff of fantasy, a generic red-windcheater- and-blue-jeans archetype for Japanese fans and bank ad campaigns; a cardboard cut-out rebel cliche. Cliches are easy to write about; but if they are also people, the task is more difficult. To write good film biographies is hard, and Donald Spoto has done so in the past; but Dean, a slippery character in life and in death, does his best to elude him.

From the start, James Dean was marked out for anti-hero. His upbringing - the early death of his mother, the abandonment by his father - left him acutely insecure and eternally vulnerable. He hero-worshipped that other orphaned outlaw, Billy the Kid and got his first motorbike at 16, earning him the nickname of "One Speed Dean". Jimmy's recklessness lost him his two front teeth: the bridge he had to wear ever after accounts for his mumbling diction and disinclination to smile in photographs, a prosaic origin for a rebellious stance.

By 1950, aged 19, there was still no evidence of Jimmy going out with girls; indeed, his first serious sexual relationship was with the appropriately- named Rogers Brackett, an advertising executive who would give Jimmy an "in" to his chosen career, chosen largely through his idolising of Marlon Brando. Mongomery Clift was, famously, another source of inspiration: Dean used to sign his name, "James-Brando-Clift-Dean", and not entirely in jest. Like many actors, his talent seemed merely an extension of his personality and his fantasies.

Spoilt, neurotic, brattish and beautiful, Dean made his way to New York, got handy with a switchblade, and was thrown out of the Actor's Studio. He annoyed virtually every director he worked with, and his bad manners (he habitually pissed where he stood) dug him deeper in the hole he dug for himself. He was apparently determined to be disliked, but yearned to be loved. He could not reciprocate in any of his affairs with men or women; Spoto's admirably unsensational account puts paid to many of the more salacious rumours surrounding Dean: the infamous photograph of Jimmy up a tree, masturbating, is dismissed (the photo existed, but was of a mentally-retarded boy), as are rumours of Dean's "meat-rack" career. Yet the ambivalent, often inexpressed sexuality illuminates Dean's dysfunctional personality (Brando told a mutual acquaintance, "Why don't you get him to an analyst? Your friend is nuts!"). Those pouting lips betray a petulancy which is more childish than rebellious; on innumerable occasions in this book Jimmy breaks down in tears. His narcissism is paradigmatic of the period ("Don't you think I look like Michelangelo's David?") and Dean was sharply aware of his own image, using it to promote a career which had little else to recommend it beyond a mercurial and brilliant instinct for the camera.

Kazan directed him in East of Eden, his first major screen role. Dean worshipped Kazan's work and for once tried not to alienate the director; Kazan found the process "like directing the faithful Lassie". He didn't like Dean: "He was never more than a limited actor and he was a highly neurotic young man obviously sick, and he got more so." As an actor, Dean could have been truly great; as a person, he was hell to be around. His only fulfilled relationship was, perhaps, with his fans, when he could be himself - and he paid for it.

Dean may have outwardly rebelled against the Hollywood system, yet, as Spoto shows, he also used it, cynically, to his own advantage. He knew that subliminally, sex is the currency of fame, and he made sure he was photographed in the right places with the right people; many of his relationships with starlets like Pier Angeli or Ursula Andress were movie romances, short-lived and publicity-conscious.

Jimmy only really wanted to make love to his car. It was entirely fitting that he met his end in his newly-delivered Spyder, a frail thin-shelled machine capable of incredible acceleration; rather like Dean himself.

A short life does not always make for satisfying biography; there is too little to get one's hands on, and there is no mature denouement. Spoto expands his text with extensive accounts of crime in Dean's home state, Indiana, discursive essays on teen rebellion, speculation about how Dean might be responsible for the high suicide rate among the teenagers of the 1990s, plot summaries of the actor's tiny oeuvre.

More illuminating are the peaks behind the sets. In Rebel Without a Cause, Sal Mineo's love for Jimmy and Dennis Hopper's hero-worship in Giant; overheated relations in the blistering Texas desert; Nicholas Ray and Natalie Wood; Ray and Dean; Dean and Elizabeth Taylor... (or so it was assumed, as Dean and Taylor disappeared into his trailer; in fact, Liz was merely performing her allotted role of therapist to the sexually insecure.)

The book opens and closes with the subsequent immortalisation of Dean, and his deification: the post-war teenager who spawned a horde of mumbling post-adolescents stumbling their way purposefully towards stardom only for it to destroy them, River Phoenix being only the latest casualty. Ultimately Spoto's well-researched and often empathetic account, like any account of this brief life, leaves the story unresolved. And that, of course, is part of the appeal.