Wednesday, September 30, 2015

James Dean on the Highway to Cultural Sainthood

Days before his death James Dean filmed a safe driving Public Service Announcement (PSA) in costume from his role as Jett Rink in Giant.


It has been 60 years since James Dean died in a wreck of his sports car on a country highway near Cholame, California on September 30, 1955.  He was just 24 years old.  At the time of his death he had shot to fame on the strength of one already released film—East of Eden and had two more completed projects in the can, including the role that would define a generation.  On this slender body of work rests the fame that has eclipsed most of his contemporaries and endured as a legend.  Today he is a cultural icon that remains undiminished by time.  Generations of adolescents, whether they know it or not, have done what John Mellencamp described in The Ballad of Jack and Diane, “Scratches his head and does his best James Dean.

Dean was born on February 8, 1931in Marion Indiana. His father was a failed farmer who took up a trade as a dental assistant. The family moved to Santa Monica, California when he was young. He had a difficult relationship with his father but was extremely close to his mother.  When his mother died when Dean was 9, he was sent back to Indiana to live in the Quaker home his paternal aunt and uncle in Fairmount

An unhappy and moody child, he sought council from a local Methodist minister, Rev. James DeWeerd, who became a mentor and substitute father figure.  DeWeerd introduced young Dean to many things beyond their small community including theater, auto racing, and bullfighting.  Some biographers suggest that this relationship may eventually have become sexual.

Despite being an indifferent student, Dean was popular in the local high school and was both an athlete and a participant in drama and forensic competitions.  After graduating in 1949 he moved back to California where he lived with his father and stepmother while attending Santa Monica College with a declared pre-law major.  He did not last long before transferring to the University of Southern California (UCLA) where he switched to a drama major, rupturing his tenuous relationship with his father.  

His talent and ability did not go unnoticed.  He quickly earned the coveted role of Malcolm in a production of Macbeth.  He also enrolled in James Whitmore’s acting studio. In January 1951 Dean dropped out of school to pursue acting as a career.

He found it difficult.  After a promising start with a roll as the Apostle John in an Easter religious television broadcast, he managed to get just three walk-ons, unaccredited movie jobs.  Dean was parking cars for a living at CBS Studios and virtually homeless when he was noticed by Rogers Brackett, a radio director for an advertising agency.  Brackett took him in and mentored his career.  Both Brackett and Whitmore encouraged the young actor to go to New York for stage experience and training.

 In the big city, Dean’s career went on the upswing.  He made some money testing stunts for the quirky game show Beat the Clock and was soon getting speaking roles on various CBS dramatic anthology series then being presented live from New York.  He followed in the footsteps of his acting idol Marlin Brando by gaining admittance to the prestigious Actors Studio where he studied the Method under legendary teacher Lee Strasberg.  

There were even better roles on Golden Age of Television programs like Studio One, Lux Video Theater, Kraft Television Theatre, Hallmark Hall of Fame, You Are There, and Omnibus.  He also found work in ambitious avant-garde off-Broadway theater productions including a stage version of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and a translation of the Greek tragedy Women of Trachis by poet Ezra Pound.

The conflict with his own father may have contributed to Dean's intensity in East of Eden.


It was a well reviewed turn on Broadway in a production of André Gide’s The Imortalist in 1954 that attracted the attention of Hollywood.  At the suggestion of screenwriter Paul Osborn and over the initial objection of the studio, director Elia Kazan bypassed his close associate Brando to cast Dean as Cal in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.  Dean stunned the director and fellow cast members including Jo Van Fleet, Raymond Massey and fellow Actors Studio alum Julie Harris by improvising key bits of business in the film.  The film opened to strong reviews and brisk ticket sales despite the unknown Dean in the lead.  The film went on to win numerous awards including Best Drama at Cannes and a Golden Globe.  Dean would win a posthumous Academy Award for his roll.

On the strength of reports from the set of East of Eden Warner Brothers decided to revive a long abandoned project—Rebel Without a Cause based solely on the title of psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner’s 1944 non-fiction book on criminal pathology.  Director Nicholas Ray helped develop the story of suburban teenage angst and rebellion.  Dean led the cast as Jim as the troubled lead with Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood as the outcast members of his surrogate family.  

Defining teenage angst and cool for generations to come.


Dean was drinking heavily during the filming and was quickly getting a reputation for being wild.  His fondness for fast cars and racing enhanced his bad boy image. He began road racing sports cars in early 1955 and placed in the top four at several meets.

 Forbidden to race while working on his next film, Dean upgraded to a limited edition Porsche 550 Spyder which he had customized and nicknamed The Little Bastard.

The next film was Giant an epic, somewhat overwrought multi-generational depiction of a Texas cattle and oil baron’s family based on the book by Edna Ferber.  Dean purposefully chose to play a supporting role to leads Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson because he wanted to break away from being type cast as sensitive, alienated young men.  Instead he played Jett Rink, an ignorant hired hand jealous of Hudson’s wealth and beautiful wife who goes on to become a successful oil wildcatter and ages into a still resentful, drunken tycoon.  But Dean played the older character as so extravagantly deranged that it is impossible to believe that he could have won the affections of his old rival’s daughter.  But in Cinemascope grandeur with three box office stars, the film was destined to be a hit.  

With Giant going into post production, Dean filmed a public service announcement in his Jett Rink cowboy costume advising teenager to drive safely and obey the speed limit

Dean in the Little Bastard.  Alec Guinness thought it looked sinister  and made a chilling prediction.


On September 23, Dean proudly showed off The Little Bastard, now decorated with the racing number 130 on the hood, sides, and back to British actor Alec Guinness who thought it looked sinister, “If you get in this car,” he told Dean, “You will be dead in a week.”

Exactly seven days later On September 30 Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wütherich set off from Competition Motors, where the Porsche had been readied for on their way to a race at Salinas.  Originally he had planned to trailer the car to the race, but decided that he needed more time behind the wheel to get the feel of the new car.  A crew member and a photographer accompanied the car in Dean’s station wagon still equipped with a trailer.  Near Mettler Station in Kern County Dean was ticketed for driving ten miles an hour over the 55 m.p.h. speed limit.  After that the vehicles became separated.  

A few minutes after refueling Dean was headed west on what was then U.S. 45 near Cholame when a five year old Ford coupe driven by a 23 year old college student headed in the opposite direction changed lanes to take a fork in the road and drove into Dean’s lane.  “That guy’s gotta stop,” he told Wütherich, “He’ll see us.”  Seconds later the cars collided nearly head on.

The coupe’s front grill, riding over the low hood of the sports car stuck Dean in the head.  He suffered a fractured skull and jaw, a broken neck, and massive internal injuries.  Although still barely breathing when an ambulance arrived, he died on the way to the hospital

Wütherich was thrown clear of the car and survived.  The driver of the other vehicle, who claimed never to have seen Dean, suffered minor head injuries and was released un-charged.  Despite legends to the contrary, physical evidence showed that Dean was not speeding at the time of the crash.

Dean was buried by his family at Park Cemetery in Fairmount.  Reaction to his death by the public was sharp and instantaneous.  Like John Dillinger had once recommended, he had “lived hard, died young, and left a good looking corpse.” 

Rebel Without a Cause was released on October 27.  The image of Dean as the rebellious teenager instantly became inseparable from the actor’s real identity

Giant was delayed in getting to the screen by Dean’s death.  Some of his dialoged in his climatic drunken scene was inaudible.  Actor Nick Adams had to be brought in to dub sections.  Other long shots had to be made with doubles.  Still, when that film was released in November of 1956 it became the biggest grossing film in Warner’s history and remained so until Superman twenty-two years later.    

Since his death Dean has been the inspiration for imitative performances by generations of actors, several songs, novels, and even a French language musical.  All three of his films are considered classics and are usually included in round-up of the greatest American films. 

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.


But perhaps nothing says more about Dean’s iconic status more than the 1984 painting by Gottfried Helnwein inspired by Edward Hopper’s NightscapeReproduced as a popular poster, Helnwein placed a lone James Dean at the front of dark dinner while Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart shared a coffee and Elvis Presley cleaned up behind the counter.

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