Don’t worry. That guy’s gotta see us.
Over Father’s Day, I went with my dad to the Griffith Observatory nestled comfortably in the Hollywood Hills. And while there were the expected monuments built to the giants of astronomy (Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus) there was an unexpected monument off to the side for the legendary James Dean. It was a creepy monument built in the Roman style; made out of bronze, hollow, and missing the eyes. Dean was not, as far as I know, an astronomy enthusiast. But a few notable scenes from Nicholas Ray’s famous 1955 teen epic Rebel Without a Cause were filmed at the Griffith Observatory, not least of which was one of the most intense knife fights ever filmed. When I left the observatory, my dad and I trekked down into Hollywood proper. Along Hollywood Blvd., there are several murals put up for the tourists, all of which depict a gaggle of movies stars, all in their respective primes, grinning and posing for the onlooker. The most common face you’ll see is Marilyn Monroe. Second would probably be Elvis Presley. Third is James Dean.
James Dean is one of the more peculiar legends in the Hollywood canon. He is only really known for three major feature films, and yet his face drifts up to the surface whenever Hollywood history is discussed. He’s one of the most common elements in the showbiz mosaic. His face has permeated popular culture in a way that few others’ have. In a way, Dean is no longer a human being. He is a martyred demigod, squinting in his inimitable sexy fashion, peering at us through history, smirking from on high.
No one represents cool like Dean. Not Steve McQueen. Not Clint Eastwood. Not any of the wispy, wimpy action stars of today. Dean seems to have invented cool. It oozed from his very pores. His outfits, his life, his attitude, his natural acting, these were all things that he seemed to exude without knowing it. He didn’t attempt to be cool, he merely was.
This week’s lecture in CraveOnline’s Free Film School will be a brief look at James Dean, but, more than that, it will be a brief meditation on the way fame operates in Hollywood. How movies can elevate someone to legend status after their deaths, and how the Movie Star System resembles, in many ways, a pop culture Pantheon.
James Dean was born in 1931, and died in 1955, only 24 years old. And while he appeared on several TV shows, and even has speaking line in a long string of 1950s TV series that had their sponsors’ names right in the title (shows like Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Kraft Television Playhouse, and Hallmark Hall of Fame), it wasn’t until his first feature film, 1955’s East of Eden, directed by Elia Kazan (whom I mentioned in last week’s article on the Hollywood Black List), that he made the world take notice. Dean played the famous character of Cal from John Steinbeck’s novel, the son of a wealthy farmer named Adam (played by Raymond Massey in the film). Cal and his brother Aron (Richard Davalos), sons of a man named Adam, are enacting a sort of modern day Cain and Abel story. Although much more of a modern-day hothouse than a proper parable.
This was to be the only leading role Dean would actually see. His other two major roles would be released after his death.
1955 also saw Rebel Without a Cause, which is required viewing for all American teenagers. A wicked and mildly subtle sendup of cautionary low-budget JD flicks, Rebel featured Dean as the teenage son of a pair of doting squares (dad is played by “Gilligan’s Island” co-star Jim Backus) who simply don’t know how to talk with young people. Eventually Dean runs off to start a romance with Natalie Wood, and gain the fraternal (and easily seen as homosexual) love from Sal Mineo, but not before running afoul of the local toughs. Dean’s character, named Jim Stark, is the great grandfather of any and all teenage film characters that came after him. It is Jim Stark’s nobility, independence, moral certitude, and overwhelming uncertainty about life that all teen characters aspire to. He is the deity they worship. Indeed, it could even be argued that all real life teenagers are only trying to be the rebels that Jim Stark was. Teens like to rebel. Jim Stark gave them a model and a voice. James Dean, then, was more than an actor, but a cultural phenomenon. Between him, and Marlon Brando in The Wild One, teenagers would alter their accepted ethos for generations.
Dean, it should be noted, was of a new generation of actors who studied their craft under the relatively revolutionary Stanislavsky method. For those of you unfamiliar with Method Acting, it is a technique that required you not just play a character, but tap into any real-life memories you have in order to draw out the proper performance; you can’t just act like you’re sad, but actually experience real sadness. Dean studied under the famous acting teacher Lee Strasberg, and helped, along with Brando, to usher in a new form of extra naturalistic acting in film. Eventually, Dean’s influence gave birth to the success of actors like Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, and Al Pacino. If you live in L.A., chances are you know some actors. Ask if they are Method or not. They’ll likely have a lengthy response in favor or against Stanislavsky’s Method.
Rebel Without a Cause was released a mere month after Dean’s death, which galvanized him forever. Not only was he a handsome and romantic leading man, with the toughness to get into knife fights, but the gentleness to woo Natalie Wood, and the wherewithal to look after his skittish young ward, but he was now a martyr as well. The new face of the tragic young. The new model of living fast and dying young. Not since Goethe’s The Sorrow of Young Werther (1774) was romantic angst so hip. Dean would have likely enjoyed a long and notable career had he lived, and would have picked up several acting awards. But it could be argued that his young death was what immediately canonized him, and push him into Hollywood Legend territory. I wonder if the elderly James Dean would have gone the way of some of his contemporaries. Tony Curtis was in a crummy straight-to-video mummy movie once. Would Dean have eventually gone down the cheap monster movie path just to keep working?
Dean had completed one other film, and it was a doozy. Giant was released in 1956, wherein Dean played the son of a pair of wealthy oil barons (Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson). The film is a 3 ½-hour intergenerational epic, and Dean is seen at the end as an older man, complete with grey hair and a receding hairline. Odd to see a dead 24-year-old actor living into old age in microcosm. Since he never had the chance to age, this will be the closest thing we’ll get.
The story of James Dean’s death is legendary. He famously, while on a long stretch of California highway at night, ran into another car traveling the other direction. Dean was famously a racing enthusiast, and has purchased numerous cars in his short acting career. His final car, nicknamed Little Bastard after one of Dean’s own on-track nicknames, was a silver Porche that was notoriously dangerous looking. James Dean’s last words were reportedly, “Don’t worry. That guy’s gotta see us.”
In 1997, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg made a film called Crash, a twisted and audacious NC-17-rated film about a group of adults who achieve sexual pleasure from car crashes. In the film, a character played by Elias Koteas famously recreates Dean’s famous crash – complete with vintage cars and only a few extra seat belts – for a set of eager onlookers. While there are no people in the world who actually do achieve sexual pleasure from car crashes (well, I’m relatively confident there aren’t any), events like Dean’s car crash did indeed have the nation newly fetishizing their cars. Dean’s death was a cultural rippling point for America’s exploding automobile driven life. The tragic romance and the ineffable cool began drifting into mainstream cars culture. There aren’t so many gearhead teens these days (the current generation probably wants more to do with their telephone widgets than their souped-up hot rods), but we still lionize the automobile in this nation. James Dean’s death was most certainly one of the more notable points in automobile history. James Dean broke his neck and became immortal.
What makes someone a movie star? Surely talent can help, but more than that, movie stars all have a million-watt “It” quality. They have an effervescent personality, they have a persona that everyone wants to emulate. It’s only when their real-life personality and their real-life tragedy begin to enter into their work that they become true movie legends, though. One cannot be sainted until one dies. James Dean died in 1955, and entered into a Pantheon of Hollywood gods.
Dean the human was impressive, yes, and was, by all accounts, a humble and intelligent young man who took his craft very seriously. Despite his flashy death, Dean was rarely a flashy guy and didn’t indulge in vices the way so many young stars and starlets of today do. Dean the deity, however, is immortal.
Should we hold our movie stars to such high standards? Well, it’s natural for us to do so. It’s okay to have heroes. It’s even okay to have legends. And, thanks to the permanence of film, we’ll always have their performances to look at, to admire, and to be impressed by generation after generation. The ghosts of our stars will always be with us. Dean changed the face of stardom for a new generation, and he remains to gold standard by which we measure all tragic Hollywood death. I recall listening to the radio when news of Heath Ledger’s death reached me. Not 30 minutes passed without someone mentioning James Dean.
Are you a rebel? Is James Dean your hero? I bet he is.
Homework for the Week:
Watch any of the three James Dean movies. How was it? How was James Dean? Is he a great actor? Is he a good actor? When did you first hear of James Dean? How long have you known his face? How do you perceive your favorite showbiz personalities? Are they friends to you? Colleagues? Experts? Legends? People you want to have lunch with? People you want to sleep with? How do you lionize them? How does your perception of a star change after they die?