The James Dean story

Fifty years ago this week, the 24-year-old movie star James Dean drove his Porsche Spyder into Donald Turnupseed's Ford and was instantly killed. His shade has troubled America ever since. David Thomson returns to the hills of California to tell a cultural ghost story to end them all
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The Independent Culture

James Byron Dean was born in Marion, Indiana, on 8 February 1931 - that is dirt-poor farm country, in the worst year of the Depression. His father was a dental technician who shipped the family out to Los Angeles when Dean was six. Three years later, the father dumped the family when the mother died of cancer and the kid was sent back to Fairmount, Indiana to be with relatives - grandparents, an uncle and an aunt. They were Quakers and they loved the boy dearly, but there was something in Dean that knew his destiny - so in his heart he stayed an orphan, a lost boy, abandoned by his father. He was a character at a time when teenagers were not yet acknowledged as a phenomenon.

You will never grasp the impact of James Dean if you don't also notice the novelty of teenagers in America in 1955. It was in that year that a high-school film called Blackboard Jungle made a belated hit and a new musical form out of a record - Bill Haley and the Comets doing "Rock Around the Clock".

In the same year, working from a hut in Memphis, a kid named Elvis Presley recorded "Mystery Train" which made number one in the country charts. And you misunderstand that country boy Presley if you don't see how he wanted to be James Dean - and realised how Dean's sudden death had left an opening.

Another American kid saw the light of day in 1955 (albeit in Paris) - her name was Dolores Haze, but we know her as Lolita. America was going in opposite directions at the same time - Frank Sinatra murmured "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" and Doris Day sang "Love Me or Leave Me". But beside those enduring classics of pop music and the first signs of rock, John Coltrane joined the Miles Davis Quintet, Sonny Rollins met Clifford Brown and Max Roach. And in the matter of signal deaths - Charlie Parker died in 1955, and America still has to catch up with that career. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A View from the Bridge and Bus Stop all opened on Broadway and the great American movies of the year included not just the Dean pictures but Kiss Me Deadly, The Night of the Hunter and To Catch a Thief. At the Emmies, Lucille Ball won for I Love Lucy.

Dean left Indiana in 1950 and he went back to Los Angeles in an effort to regain his father. Apparently, the man didn't want his son. So the boy started acting at Santa Monica Junior College and then UCLA. He went to New York and had a few years of aspiring poverty. He did commercials, some live TV drama, a couple of small movie parts and he caused a sensation in two plays - See the Jaguar and The Immoralist. In the latter, based on the book by André Gide, and co-starring Geraldine Page and Louis Jourdan, he was so flagrantly suggestive as a gay Arab kid that he was dropped from the cast. He got a screen test, and all in the space of about 18 months he did East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. He was going to play Rocky Graziano in the movie Somebody Up There Likes Me when the car crash happened. So Paul Newman did it instead, and another career was launched. But Paul Newman has turned into a respectable old gentleman - and somehow no one ever saw Dean like that. Dean had loved the sweet actress Pier Angeli (and a lot of much nastier girls); he probably had homosexual affairs, too. Any way you look at it, he was ahead of his time.

It was a long time ago, of course; this Friday, it will have been 50 years. There will be articles everywhere, television tributes, revivals of the three movies, and ceremonies in Fairmount. A museum has offered $1m for the shattered Porsche Spyder, but no one seems to know where the wreck is now. Perhaps it is like the true cross, a scattering of precious fragments. What 50 years ago means is that if Jim and Judy (the Deaner and Natalie Wood) had had a child after Rebel Without a Cause, and if they'd called him "Plato" to honour their friend killed in that movie, he'd be in his late forties now, a successful estate agent in the San Fernando Valley, or whatever. So that Plato might have his own kids now who'd be entering college, and being young Republicans for Bush. I was told just a couple of years ago that in a course on melodrama movies of the 1950s, the teacher had shown East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause and most of the kids had sided with the parents and their middle-class caution and compromise. They had looked on Dean and seen a whiner, a spoiled baby, a troublemaker; someone who needed to pull himself together.

In that light, James Dean seems a very long time ago. But then you look at Sean Penn, you see the great upthrust of his front hair, you try to get the rhythm of his wounded brooding, his feeling that the world is too awful to be spoken to, and you know that the Deaner is alive and well. People say that Marlon Brando was the great actor of his age, and who's to argue? But that leaves room for something more intimate than acting. What Dean did was to take over the screen and his movies and say, look, the subject here, the melody and the rhythm, the feeling is what kids feel. More or less, Dean high-jacked the movies. You get it above all in East of Eden, where he's the outsider, the maverick, the figure of Cain, and yet he makes you see at the end of the film that Cain is the true source of feeling in the world. It was something that shocked Raymond Massey rigid at the time - and Massey played Dean's father in that film - but the director Elia Kazan went with it. He had had Brando first, but he knew Dean was a greater force - a way of being that altered the given wisdom or morality of a story.

People ask, what would Dean have done - and the answers go from playing any and every part he wanted to dying in some unlucky, stupid road accident. I can't help but imagine a play in which Satan (I'd cast Kevin Spacey) takes Jimbo up on Mulholland Drive at night. Jimmy gives the devil a ride in his Porsche - they do swirling skids on the dirt-road section, so there are puffs of dust hanging in the moonlight. This is September 1955, if you like. Dean is just back from Texas after shooting Giant, and he is allowed to drive again. On the morrow he is taking his Porsche up north for the race. The devil has read the script, of course, and he makes his pitch to the young idol: go on, keep your date with Turnupseed - and eternity is yours. Or, take my advice (Spacey is quiet, calm, candid here), stay home and live to a great old age.

"Eternity?" muses James Dean. "That is one hell of a movie."

"Jimmy," says Satan, "that is the big one."

So if Jimmy had stayed at home on that September day, he would be 74 years old now. He'd be the same age as Clint Eastwood (and don't think Clint didn't grow up and dream of movies with Jimmy in his mirror - for years Clint had his own hair combed up and back the same way). If Jimmy had lived he might have turned into the wreck now known as Robert Redford, unable to bury that boyish grin that must haunt him.

No one who ever saw Giant can ever quite believe that Dean was actually a year older than Elizabeth Taylor. But, if you will, you can imagine Dean with the status and the Oscars of Clint, and you can even think that Dean might have ended up marrying Liz for a while - nearly everyone did. Wouldn't he have been better casting than Richard Burton? Dean could have been the most beloved and honoured veteran of classical Hollywood. In which case, of course, the young audience today would have turned up their noses at him as an old fart - because respect is not their mood. (And Sean Penn, incidentally, 45 this year, is going to have to come to terms with middle age and respect - the very things he has pledged himself to scorn.) Ah well, you say, maybe so, but if it hadn't been the highway at Cholame that got him, it would have been something else. James Dean might have died drunk, of prostate cancer; or in a Tijuana knife fight in the gay part of town. He might have been shot on the street in London or Paris or Tokyo. One way or another, maybe James Dean had assured himself that he wouldn't be around to see 50, his own spare tyre of flesh, his crippling deafness, his losing touch with what young people longed for.

If you go back to our play up on Mulholland, the devil has a very persuasive case. He says, Jimmy, it's one quick crash - there's no pain, not like the prostate cancer; there's no indignity - like having your own children laugh at you; there's no humiliation - like being asked if maybe you wouldn't consider the lead in a TV cop show one day. You go to Paso Robles, and you're lovely forever, the way you look tonight (I think Satan is coming on to Jim a little bit, but that happened and Jim was not a denier of experience).

The devil tells Dean that he has been very lucky. He has made three pictures, with Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray and George Stevens - who happen to be not just three of the best directors around, but ideal casting. With Kazan, you get the whole tradition of the Actors Studio and Brando. With Ray you get the great mixed-up poet of the American cinema. And with Stevens you get the older authority figure against whom you can rebel. It is the perfect three-act career and three movies that might have succeeded even if some stooge like Dennis Hopper or Elvis Presley had had his parts.

But here is the best part, whispers Satan. Now, you never age, you never change. You never have hair loss or a weight problem. You are never drug dependent or tax delinquent. And do you realise the very American thing that gives you, the thing that locks you into legend? "What's that?" asks Dean.

It's eternal youth, sighs the devil, the thing that everyone in America is about to want once the whole young generation thing takes off. The devil has seen the future: he knows that Presley, Dylan, Jagger... all the way to Penn, Pitt and Depp are coming along. He knows that in 50 years the movies will no longer be a part of the larger American culture, they will be one thrust of the American attitude that after youth there is only death. And you, Jimmy, you are locked in at 24, in a red wind-breaker, with a cigarette in your kissable mouth and Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood gazing at you as if with dreams like this there was no need to consider reality any more.

So what it amounts to is this: that Dean was allowed to stop at his perfect hesitation - which was, more or less, that of being in high school; he was still 23. Consider that for a moment, because it's vital to the cult and the meaning of the man. He was always a few years older than the characters he played - in Rebel, he is in high school! And what does everyone in high school desire above all else? The experience and the cool of being 23. That's why Dean did not actually seem to be a rebel without a cause. He was a visionary who did have a philosophy - be cool, man. I doubt that Hollywood ever had an icon who was so intensely flattering to the kid audience.

I know, you want to insist that he was also a very good actor. Accepted. Except that it wasn't really acting. If you look closely at Marlon Brando in the great years he had just before Dean came along - the Streetcar to On the Waterfront years - I think you can see how very actorly and studied and self-conscious Brando was. Nearly as much as Sean Penn now. Dean was much cleverer or much more instinctive. He behaved on screen. He underplayed. He hid. He turned away. He was recessive. He was still in the intense awkward stews of adolescence. I don't really think he acted. He simply delivered presence. Don't miss the point, but it was the arrival of Dean - in my opinion - that started the collapse of Marlon Brando. Brando was seven years older and, just as sure as Sonny Liston on his back with Clay dancing over him, he knew a spotlight had shifted, and he didn't like it. Dean wouldn't have liked it if, in the late Sixties, say, he'd been put in a film with the young Jack Nicholson and Jack ate him up. But Dean didn't have to live through that.

So it's not just that every actor since 1955 has studied the three films until he has them by heart. It's that Hollywood is a ghost town now where kid wannabes inhabit the houses, the studios and the narcissistic relationships with mirrors that once affected stars of all ages. What Dean accomplished by taking the tough end of the devil's bargain was to live forever without growing up. And more and more, that reveals itself as the great craze and the unhealable curse that afflicts modern America.