James Dean: Forever giant

This week marks half a century since the death of James Dean. Michael Park joins a gathering of 30,000 fans, friends - and lookalikes - for a festival of remembrance in his Indiana home town
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The Independent US

Aldrich, dressed in blue jeans and a small red sports jacket, seemed overwhelmed when he came off stage just after 9pm on Saturday night to be met by his beaming mother. He rubbed his eyes and looked blankly at his trophy as strangers patted him on the head. It was all a bit much for the eight-year-old.

For the past 30 years, at the end of September, the small town of Fairmount, Indiana, has held a James Dean Festival in honour of its most famous son. (Fairmount also has a famous cat: Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield, grew up in the town and the laconic cat's image is painted next to Dean's on the water tower that dominates the town's skyline.)

Dean was born in the neighbouring town of Marion on 8 February 1931, but when he was three months old he and his parents moved to Fairmount. By the age of five they had moved to Los Angeles, but returned to his home town after his mother died from cancer when he was nine.

This Friday, it will be 50 years since Dean, aged 24, died in a car accident on a quiet stretch of highway a few hundred miles north of Los Angeles. Despite only starring in three films, he is still remembered, celebrated and imitated around the world.

For Fairmount, it is Dean's untimely death that has made the greatest difference. During the annual three-day festival, the town of 3,000 welcomes more than five times that number to Main Street, to the tiny museum, to Dean's rather plain grave on the edge of town, to the vintage car show, to the Grand Parade, and of course, to the now world-famous James Dean lookalike competitions.

Shortly after Aldrich has been crowned, the adult contestants take to the stage to strike James Dean poses in front of the warmed-up audience of more than 3,000. For the adult competition, a panel of five judges - including two of Dean's former schoolmates - are charged with choosing a winner. "This looks like being the best year we've had in a long time," says Pam Crawford, president of the James Dean Fan Club and one of the judges.

Some of the entrants clearly believe that sideburns, a quiff and a cigarette are all that are needed to look like James Dean: in order to convince the judges how much he resembles the film star, one competitor takes to the stage with his face poking through a giant cut-out of a James Dean stamp. "One year we had a Japanese fella enter," says Phil Zeigler, who organises the event. "They are cuckoo about Jimmy in Japan."

This year all the entrants are quiet Americans, and after the field has been narrowed down to three, the judges vote to elect a winner. Indiana native, Jimmy White, is declared the most convincing Rebel - for the third time in four years.

"When I first entered, I didn't even know who James Dean was," White, 27, admits backstage. "A friend's sister who was a James Dean fan said I looked like him and she brought me here. That first year I didn't know what to do, I was shaking on stage, but as the years have gone by I've learnt more about him and I think he's great."

White is not the only one. In Fairmount for this year's festival are fans from Australia, Germany, Japan and a crew from French television here to make a documentary about the enigmatic, photogenic star.

While the festival's climatic competitions regularly draw large crowds, however, some of the other Dean-related activities don't have quite the same pulling power. At 11 o'clock in the morning, in the empty car park next to the Fairmount State Bank, only a handful of spectators, and even fewer competitors, have gathered for the "Rock Lasso" competition.

With a quick flick of the wrist, entrants have to tie a knot in a short piece of rope with a rock tied to the end of it, emulating the trick that Dean performed in the film Giant. Scott Imfelt, 42, from New York, has been coming to Fairmount for the past 19 years to compete in this event and has triumphed several times. Imfelt believes that although this year marks the 50th anniversary of Dean's death, the height of the actor's cult was in the 1980s and early 1990s.

"The Dean craze is waning," says Imfelt. "I do think his movies are amazing, but if he hadn't died I think his fame now would be at the same level as that of Paul Newman. People would revere him for having a huge body of work but kinda dismiss him for being an old guy, really. But now he is forever 24 and always stuck in the 1950s. More people come here for the festival and the cars than they do for James Dean."

"The cars" refers to 2,500 restored, polished and purring vehicles dating from the 1920s to 1970. They gather in the playing fields on the south side of town for what is known as the "James Dean Run". In effect a classic car show tagged on to the festival (the actor had an ultimately tragic love of cars), it attracts thousands of people who come to see, sell or just show these lovingly reconditioned American automobiles.

"I think Jimmy would be tickled to death if he'd lived to see this," says Dean's cousin, Marcus Winslow. One of the event's organisers, he admits that there don't appear to be as many people as on previous occasions. "The walk-in traffic is down just a little, but I don't blame it on Jimmy's popularity. We are in a kind of economic slump and gas has doubled in price - and we've had some bad weather."

Winslow believes his cousin's cult status has survived for so long because of the roles he played and his skills as an actor. "He was a great actor and the characters he played are characters that people still relate to today. The same problems kids had with their parents back in the 1950s, they still have today."

Winslow appears in a number of photographs with Dean and looks back on the days when they were growing up together with a still obvious sense of loss. "I've always been proud of Jimmy but I never looked at him as a movie star," he says. "I realise he has influenced so many people's lives all over the world, but he's just someone I always remember as being an older brother to me. He wasn't a rebel when he lived here in Fairmount. When Jimmy went to school here he was just as calm and ordinary as can be."

That's not the way 19-year-old Jen Wagner envisages her American idol. "No one will ever been as good as him - ever," she says vehemently a few feet from the star's grave, close to Main Street. "He was amazing."

Dean's chipped headstone rests atop a small rise in Fairmount's Park Cemetery. It is covered with flowers and, over the past few days, fans have decorated it with cigarettes, photos and even a tiny pumpkin. Wagner and her friend Erin Burkett, also 19, live several hours away in northern Indiana, but since seeing their first James Dean film three years ago, they have taken part in an annual pilgrimage to Fairmount, the festival and Dean's grave.

"I much prefer him to Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise," says Burkett, who is annoyed that other teenagers don't share her love for the fair-haired former farm boy. "A lot of people our age have never heard of him and it's kinda crazy 'cause they know all these other little people who have not really accomplished anything and then, to have a man who has accomplished so much in three little films and no one knows who he is, is just so..." She can't bring herself to finish her sentence.

Also at the graveside is devout Dean look-alike, Del Ray. Ray, 32, lives in Chicago and has been coming to take part in the look-alike competition and pay his respects for the past 20 years.

"James Dean was touched by greatness," says Ray with total sincerity. "He is an artist of unsurpassed integrity who I admire greatly because, based on hard work and his own genius, he transformed himself into an American icon and he changed motion-picture history."

Ray, unsurprisingly, refuses to accept that he may be among a dwindling body of Dean fans. "The groundswell of interest is growing," he insists, claiming he knows Dean disciples all over the world. "I was just on the phone with a friend of mine who lives in Portsmouth, England," he says. "I hated to be talking on the phone in a cemetery as it looks so disrespectful, but I was calling her because she couldn't be here and felt so bad, so I put the phone down on his grave so she could say a few words."

He pauses, looks back at where the body lies, then adds, "There are no more loyal fans than James Dean's."

Reputation without a cause?

Will Self, novelist

James Dean's iconic status has more to do with his role in the post-war creation of the American teenager and its mediation in film, than it does with any qualities he had as an actor. There were greater actors around then, but Dean fitted the bill, he lived the life, and most importantly, died the death.

Stephen Woolley, director

I used to run the Scala cinema, and when we screened any James Dean film it surprised me how many people came. What makes him important is the way each generation identifies with the alienated adolescent he portrayed. And the sexuality he exudes appeals to men and women.

Philip Saville, director

At a time when leading actors were very straight, his attitude revolutionised movie acting. He had an animalistic appeal that is still very attractive. He looked like a college kid but underneath lay all that rebellion. As long as there are misunderstood teens, his popularity will endure.

Nick James, editor, 'Sight & Sound'

I thought that he was about to go out of fashion. But obviously I'm wrong. Why should he be an icon for these days? He was an icon for a particular brand of 1950s rebellion which now seems to me to be utterly redundant for the present generation.

Stephen Fry, actor

I'm as uninterested in Dean as I am in Steve McQueen. My fault, I'm sure, but somehow they don't do it for me, these American icons. Too cool, I think.