We see his face on the sides of buses, in magazines and on billboards as he helps sell cars, jeans, beer and Pepsi Cola. While in the souvenir shops we find his image on T-shirts, posters, calendars and postcards, even on US Mail stamps.
Always he’s the epitome of cool, the perfect marketing image for the young. Yet he’s been dead for over sixty years. If he were alive today, he would be eightyeight. He is, or was, James Dean.
And guess what! He’s about to return to the screen through the miracle of computer generated images (CGI) and old footage in a movie about the Vietnam War called Finding Jack. For reasons probably not unconnected with free publicity, a film producer called Anton Ernst has decided that Dean would be perfect for one of the parts – presumably if he was still 24.
So, there we go. As the graffiti said all those years ago ‘James Dean Lives’. Sort of….
It sounds to me like a crazy, incredibly limiting idea, and I suspect it may well never happen. But it would seem that there’s still more mileage to be still exploited in the Dean image.
In his lifetime, Dean’s moment in the spotlight was very brief. Only six months after his first film, East of Eden, was released in America, a movie that catapulted him to instant fame, he was dead, killed in a road accident while driving to a racing car meeting in California.
Since then fame has never left him, placing him among the most recognised of American cultural icons. James Dean – forever young is what he’s become.
‘Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse,’ he liked to joke. It was a prophetic testament. Dead at 24, his personification of youthful nonconformity has become frozen in time.
For half a century he’s been the vulnerable, misunderstood kid, an identity borrowed and worn by generations of teenagers and students.
But who was James Dean? What made him the perpetual symbol of youthful angst? Was he that good an actor? And why, after all these years, does he still seem so contemporary?
I became interested in him when, at the age of fourteen, I saw East Of Eden. He was already dead by then, which seemed strange and oddly wrong for someone so young.
But I can remember thinking I’d never seen an actor so able to convince me that he wasn’t acting, someone who said his lines as in life, as though he wasn’t sure what he was going to say next.
Alongside him other film actors seemed wooden. Dean’s debut as the troubled teenager, Cal, seemed to suck identification from the audience.
As one would expect of someone who died at 24, the biographical details on him are short. His father was a dentist in Los Angeles, but when he was nine his mother died from breast cancer.
Sent back to the family home in Indiana he was brought up on a farm with his aunt and uncle, who gave him a comfortable middle class, middle America, Quaker upbringing. Nothing rebellious there.
He was obviously never going to be a farmer, but as he got older he showed a gift for drama, winning a state competition in his senior year at high school, upset to only come sixth in a national competition. The ambition was always there.
Two days after leaving school at 18 he returned to California, where one year in college proved enough for him. With Hollywood just down the road, he picked up a few tiny parts in movies and commercials, but, restless
for immediate success, at 21 he caught the bus to New York where television was producing weekly live television dramas.
Age mates Paul Newman, Martin Landau and Steve McQueen would all compete with him for the same parts, and, at first, he was often rejected because he was small, never more than 5ft 6in, and wore glasses.
But he was very clever and articulate, extremely inventive, exceptionally photogenic (without the glasses) and fashionably bohemian. Within eighteen months he’d appeared in over thirty TV plays – one of them with Ronald Reagan.
Joining the Actors Studio as an observer, thus following in the footsteps of Marlon Brando, he inhaled the spirit of method acting. And then after two very brief appearances on Broadway he was called to Hollywood to appear in East of Eden.
He was 23 and flew there carrying his few belongings in a paper bag. With his first advance from the movie, he bought a second hand MG sports car. He had sixteen months left to live.
Even before East of Eden was released director Elia Kazan and Warner Brothers knew they’d discovered something special, but already Dean was proving a major unconventional pain in a Hollywood more familiar with the quiescent Fifties stars of the studio system. He knew how good he was, and he had a pathological need to be noticed.
Quickly he was pushed into his second film, Rebel Without A Cause along with Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, a study of the latest post-war American obsession with middle class delinquency, complete with its fabled chicken run sequence.
It was here, too, that his famous red zip-up jacket and blue jeans made their appearance – though they nearly didn’t. Rebel Without A Cause had been perceived as a low budget black and white film, and indeed a week’s shooting had taken place in monochrome before it was decided to begin the movie again in colour. By such commercial whims are iconic images created.
Almost as though racing against time he began his third movie, Giant, just days after finishing Rebel Without A Cause. This time he appeared alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Taylor became a confidante, but Hudson, an old school kind of movie star, hated him.
‘He was hard to be around,’ Hudson would say many years later. ‘Full of contempt.’ Dean thought Hudson was a lousy actor.
By now his pay per movie was soaring. He now owned a Porsche sports car and raced it successfully at amateur meetings around California. What he really wanted, though, was a racing car, so during Giant he bought a new silver Porche Spider, only to be told by the studio’s insurers that he wasn’t allowed to drive it until filming was completed.
He had no option but to comply, but between scenes took the time to appear in a road safety commercial. ‘And, remember,’ he says in it, ‘drive safely, because the life you save…might be mine,’ laughingly changing the line from ‘might be yours’. By now he had just thirteen days left to live.
On Friday, September 30, 1955, a week after finishing his part in Giant, he picked up the new Porsche, now with the name ‘Little Bastard’ painted on the front. And, after lunch with his father and an uncle, set off with a mechanic for a race meeting in Northern California.
At three thirty that afternoon a traffic cop pulled him over and gave him a ticket for speeding. He proceeded on his way. Then at 5.45 pm a young student on his way home for the weekend called Donald Turnupseed made a mistake on a dead straight country road, and pulled his old Ford right across the path of the Porsche.
Dean could well have been doing a hundred miles an hour. His mechanic was thrown clear in the impact and survived with a few broken bones. Turnupseed had a bruised nose. But James Dean was killed instantly, his neck broken, his head almost cut off his body in the impact.
When his second film Rebel Without a Cause was released shortly afterwards it was an instantaneous worldwide success. But thousands of fan letters poured into Warner Brothers refusing to believe that Dean was dead, insisting that he was badly injured, hideously crippled and being kept out of sight in a sanatorium.
Shortly after his death, his wrecked car was displayed in a showroom in Los Angeles where fans tore off pieces, wanting a part of his death to take home with them.
A year later the cult of denial and hysteria was still gripping when Giant was released, the studio having to keep secret the fact that Dean’s voice in his last scene had been dubbed over by another actor, because the sound quality had been found wanting.
His image was like that of a rock star, but he’d been dead before rock and roll was properly born, before Elvis recorded his first hit.
But what made him a legend? It was, I believe, a combination of the man and the times. He had a particular ability for displaying neuroses on screen, a talent that just happened to come along at the birth of America’s obsession with youth culture. His casting as the confused kid fitted the moment to perfection.
Ten years earlier he would have been starring in movies wearing a uniform and a tin hat showing how America was winning World War II, but by the mid-Fifties prosperity was producing a new society of baby-boomers that never stopped growing.
When I made a documentary about Dean twenty years after his death my producer, David Puttnam, christened it James Dean; The First American Teenager, because that was how he had seemed to our generation.
Since then the advertising industry has turned those sensitive good looks, the jeans and T-shirt and that great hair, into a classic style.
But they were only able to do this because Dean, a born narcissist, had been happy to be followed around by photographers in the eighteen months that he was in Hollywood. Even on the day he died a photographer friend was following in another car.
The result was that there are literally thousands of shots of him available. There’s the macabre James Dean sitting in a coffin in an undertakers in his home town, another tending his new Porsche, another showing us what an existential he was in his apartment in New York, and yet another as he practiced bullfighting manoeuvres.
But the great majority just showed him looking lonely, the outsider in the grown-up world. And pivotal to this lasting image was his role in Rebel Without A Cause, which places the characters of Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo around Dean like a teenage family.
Bizarrely none of the three young epoch making stars were to reach the age their parents were in the film. Sal Mineo was stabbed to death outside his home in Los Angeles in 1976 at the age of 37, while Natalie Wood drowned in 1981, aged 43, after falling, probably drunk, off her husband’s boat at night and being unable to summon help.
Over the years there have been endless suggestions (when it seemed to matter more) that Dean was homosexual, that the girl movie stars he took out, such as Ursula Andress, were just dates arranged by the studio as cover, and that he attended a gay party the night before he died.
Well, maybe, or maybe not. Certainly, he’s become an icon to the gay community, but his friend, actor Martin Landau, didn’t believe he was gay. He had gay friends for sure, but he was an actor, it would have been strange if he hadn’t.
He had girlfriends, too, writing regularly to at least two in New York when he was in Hollywood. And he was certainly keen on actress Pier Angeli. Then director Elia Kazan would complain that Dean would have sex with waitresses in his trailer while making East of Eden. But all this was in another time, a time of discretion, when past lovers, male or female, didn’t sell their kiss and tell stories as soon as an ex-lover became famous.
Later in his life Sal Mineo was asked if he and Dean had been lovers. He denied it, explaining that in those days it was possible to feel strongly about another man without automatically going into a gay relationship. When Mineo made Rebel Without A Cause, he was sixteen and hadn’t even realised he was gay.
The rumour around Hollywood when they were making that film was that Dean was sleeping with Natalie Wood. He wasn’t. She was sleeping with Nicholas Ray, who was exercising his droit de seigneur as director, although at 16, she was actually under-age. He was over 40.
Years ago when I asked Nicholas Ray if Dean was gay, he scoffed and told me: ‘He was normal. Whatever normal is.’ But, then, Ray himself was bisexual.
In truth, no-one knows. What we do know is that Dean’s death fast tracked the careers of several others. While still in New York he’d been offered the lead role in a Hollywood film called The Silver Chalice.
Despite his desperation to get into movies, he didn’t accept it. Paul Newman did, much to his lifelong embarrassment, later putting an advertisement in newspapers asking the public not to watch it when the film was shown on television.
But with Dean dead there was a vacancy for the next two films he had been contracted to make, Somebody Up There Likes Me, the story of boxer Rocky Graziano, and The Left Handed Gun, a psychological Western about the outlaw Billy The Kid. Paul Newman got both the parts. His career had begun.
For years after his death young film actors aped Dean’s mannerisms, not least Warren Beatty in Splendour In The Grass, and then a pal of his Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, while much later Martin Sheen, a huge fan, based his performance on Dean in the movie Badlands.
Nowadays Leonardo Decaprio, Johnny Depp, Robert De Nero and director Martin Scorsese all happily admit to studying his performances. So, although you may not have realised it, you’ve probably been watching Dean’s influence on cinema for years.
Marlon Brando is usually credited with having had the greatest effect on film acting, but I would suggest Dean was equally important. Certainly, he was no mere Brando copycat.
Another nonsense has been that he was a one trick pony of an actor. He was great at playing the mixed-up kid, but what would have happened to him had he lived to become too old to play those parts?
The answer lies in the second half of Giant when, along with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, he has to age into his mid-forties. The two established stars tried to do it merely by adding a blue rinse to their hair. Dean had the studio shave his forehead at the temples and grew a moustache. When Sal Mineo saw him as the older man, he passed by not recognising him.
James Dean’s life was filled with ironies, but perhaps most ironic was in dying at the moment he did, with his forehead still shaved for Giant. A friend of his told me: ‘Jimmy was known for being so young. But actually, because of his shaved temples, he died looking like a middle-aged man.’
For over sixty years James Dean has been a symbol of youth. But he was more than that. Certainly, he was difficult to work with, selfish, vain and a terrible stealer of scenes from other actors, but he was also one of the great architects of movie acting.
The James Dean myth is interesting both as a social phenomenon and a way of marketing. But his real contribution was in the master class of screen acting he gave in his three movies. He was better than his legend.