I have made great strides in my craft. After months of auditioning, I am very proud to announce that I am a member of the Actors Studio. The greatest school of the theater. It houses great people like Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Arthur Kennedy, Mildred Dunnock ... It is the best thing that can happen to an actor. I am one of the youngest to belong. If I can keep this up and nothing interferes with my progress, one of these days I might be able to contribute something to the world.
-- James Dean, writing to his family back home in Indiana in 1952
Rebel Without a Cause, the 1955 film that starred James Dean as angsty teenager Jim Stark -- a kid doubly alienated, from adults and the youth culture of his new high school -- returns to theaters in Conway, Little Rock, Benton, Fayetteville and Fort Smith on Sunday and Wednesday. (Check fanthomevents.com for more information.)
They say Dean made only three movies, but that's not exactly right. His first screen appearance was in the below average Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis musical comedy Sailor Beware (1951). His uncredited part as a boxer's cornerman was so small that biographer David Dalton doesn't even mention the film in his book James Dean: The Mutant King.
Dean was also a faceless G.I. in Sam Fuller's Fixed Bayonets (1951), although you mightn't pick him out. His only line of "It's a rear guard coming back" was left on the cutting room floor. He was an uncredited kid at the soda fountain in Douglas Sirk's Has Anybody Seen My Gal (1952). He could have slipped by unnoticed had not things began to break his way, had he not taken a part as a venal homosexual Arab houseboy in a Broadway adaptation of the Andre Gide novel, The Immoralist. He might not have drawn the attention of director Elia Kazan, and East of Eden (1955) might have been a different film entirely.
Though he was arguably better as Cal Trask in East of Eden or as Jett Rink in the posthumously released Giant, Rebel is his iconic performance. With it he awakened a burgeoning demographic, the not-quite-adults of postwar America with their spending money and leisure time, the same kids who made youth music a viable business and made rock 'n' roll possible. Dean was one of the inventors of rock 'n' roll, though he apparently had little or no musical talent (Dalton, in his book, offers evidence that Dean wrote the lyrics to a single unrecorded pop song).
Yet Dean defined rock 'n' roll as a cultural practice, as an attitude, as surely as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry defined it as an amalgam of black rhythm & blues and white country music traditions. Dean was the original punk, a vulnerable version of Brando's motorcycle gangster rebelling against whatever society had to offer.
In real life, he was a blond blue-eyed track and basketball star from small-town Indiana, but he came to stand for the alternative to mythic American wholesomeness. James Dean was the kid folded over in the gutter, rocking drunkenly. He was the knife fighter, the perpetual outsider who had to prove himself to a new crowd because he'd been kicked out of his last school for messing up a guy who'd called him chicken.
He was the sensitive one, the real father figure in Rebel -- the boy who'd never grow into apron-wearing Jim Backus but zipped up dead Sal Mineo's jacket because the "poor kid was always cold." Would any of this mean so much as it seems if James Dean was snow-haired and crinkled, padding around Palm Springs or Beverly Hills?
No, because James Dean isn't James Dean without Sept. 30, 1955. (The late James Bridges, a boy from Paris, Ark., made a movie about that day, 9/30/55.)
In David Cronenberg's 1996 film Crash, an underground group of car crash survivors who have made a sexual fetish of automobile accidents gather on a desolate stretch of highway to stage a re-enactment of James Dean's fatal collision with a car driven by college student Donald Turnupseed.
"The two would meet only for one moment," Vaughn (played by Elias Koteas), the most zealous of these auto-eroticists, says before he dons a crash helmet, climbs into the driver's seat of a replica of Dean's Little Bastard, a 1955 Porsche Spyder, and proceeds to barrel down the road where he is struck broadside by a left-turning reproduction of Turnupseed's lumbering Ford.
Vaughn survives the crash, as does his passenger, standing in for Dean's German mechanic Rolf Wutherich. The driver of the Turnupseed car emerges staggering and stunned, an unlucky man destined to become the answer to a trivia question. (The real Turnupseed -- who avoided the press for 40 years after the wreck until his death in 2000 -- suffered only a few superficial cuts and bruises and was reportedly left to hitchhike home after the crash.)
Dean's crash was a moment of destruction -- on Sept. 30, 1955, on a highway near Paso Robles, Calif., the 24-year-old actor died. But it was also a moment of creation, the inauguration of an American myth.
Had it not been for this crash, Dean might well be remembered -- he might, like his rough contemporary Paul Newman, even still be working. But he wouldn't be immortal. He wouldn't be the brooding symbol of teenage angst, the tormented hood in the red windbreaker, the tone-deaf bongo player who invented rock 'n' roll. David Essex wouldn't have sung that song, and maybe Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain wouldn't have been quite so keen on pop martyrdom. Maybe some sad kid somewhere wouldn't think it quite so glamorous to leave behind a good-looking corpse.
"Dean died at just the right time," Humphrey Bogart once said. "He left behind a legend. If he had lived, he'd never have been able to live up to his publicity."
He wasn't the first tottering young idol to fall; there was Valentino, and before him poet Thomas Chatterton. No doubt the romance of dying young -- the wish for extinction -- is as old as the first sentient flickerings throwing shadows on the cave walls of our inner skulls.
When does death arrive? When breath and brain waves give out, when the will to live expires? Maybe we begin to die at birth, or at the moment we become cognizant of the particulars of the human situation: If we are born to die, doesn't death begin with waking? Isn't it better to rush toward the closing than to rage against the dying of the light?
Though there is a persistent ghoulish legend that has him horribly disfigured and hiding away -- Walter Winchell printed it in his column -- we can safely say James Dean has been dead for a long time. His immortality is as much a fact of his life as his penchant for James Whitcomb Riley, his Botox-free forehead raked with deep lines, that fidgety, bent-neck mien. James Dean might have been a selfish mannered actor, he might have been a limited Brando manque, but he was just a kid. He might have grown as Brando did.
Newman might have benefited from Dean's death in that a lot of the parts he drew in the late '50s and early '60s could have been Dean's roles, but the fact is Dean only lived to make that holy trilogy, and those movies resonate today at least in part (and probably in the main) because of the aura of the dead kid.
Some people think Rebel Without a Cause is risible today, and that is fair; Dean twists his face and moans. But it is one of those movies that has colored the way we look at the world and the way we reckon our place within it. Because we know that while death is inevitable, it can be transcended. Because we know what it is to be movie-drunk and terribly alone. Because James Dean taught us to be defiant, to treasure our photogenic turmoil, to imagine, as the Eagles told us, that our lives -- and our self-pity -- would be all right if we could see them on the silver screen.
MovieStyle on 09/21/2018
Print Headline: James Dean's early demise part of his legacy