While James Dean acted in both television and commercials from the beginning of his career starting in the early 1950s, he made three movies and three movies only. Of course, the iconic star’s films were released when I was only 3 and 4 years old and I didn’t catch them on reruns as a teenager and never quite bothered to watch them on television or DVD. I watched two of them for the first time this past weekend.
James Dean’s mythic fame, however, is such a part of our culture that his face is recognizable by generations who have NOT seen his films. References to James Dean in music are perhaps the best example of his iconic allure. Depending on which list you read, there are dozens of songs that either reference his name or allude to him. These include David Essex’s “Rock On” and the Eagles’ hit, “James Dean.” Everyone from David Bowie, John Cougar Mellencamp, Madonna, Englebert Humperdinck sang lines about James Dean’s blue eyes, that fateful ride, or his famous slouch.
While all three of Dean’s movies were shot in one year – 1955 – only one was released before his death. In fact, “East of Eden” was the only one of Dean’s films that he saw on screen. “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) was released only a month after his death. “Giant” was hit the silver screen posthumously the next year and James Dean earned his second Academy Award nomination.
James Dean was only 24 in September 1955 when he perished in an automobile accident on his way to a car race event in Salinas, California. Driving 85 miles an hour (after being stopped only hours earlier), he collided with a car driven by a 23-year old college student who had crossed the center line. At the high rate of speed, Dean could not avoid the car which was too close to his lane. The impact was practically head on.
The screen rights of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” (1952) must have been sold nearly simultaneously – it was created on celluloid within in three years of the print publication. The screenn drama only covers the second half of Steinbeck’s family biography and isn’t particularly faithful to it.
Steinbeck’s bestselling book, has not been out of print in over 60 years. The two definitive biographies of Steinbeck (Jay Parini’s “John Steinbeck, A Biography” 1995 and Jackson J. Benson’s “The True Adventures of John Steinbeck," 1984) are now twenty and thirty years old, respectively. Biographer Parini was helped by Steinbeck’s widow in writing about John’s life (Steinbeck died in 1962) and was granted access to Stanford’s collection of letters.
The film version of “East of Eden” is also a classic. Apparently, not only did director Elia Kazan order Dean to get a tan and fatten up to look more like a farm boy of California for the movie, but he requested that James visit his estranged father to reawaken some of the emotional angst. Dean’s painful relationship showed in his acting, and in his life. His roles as a troubled teen or surly young man were iconic, and evidentially very true-to-life. His mother had died when he was only nine years old and Dean was virtually abandoned by his father to be raised by his aunt and her husband until he graduated from high school. James Dean himself had a complicated relationship with his father – much like the one depicted in the movie.
Dean’s second film, “Rebel Without a Cause," was released only a month after his dead. Actors, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, won Academy Awards for their supporting roles in the film. They were both only 16 and 17 years old when the movie was made. Nineteen-year old Dennis Hopper made his big-screen debut in “Rebel." Performances by William Backus (“Gilligan’s Island”), Edward Cuthbert Platt (“Get Smart”) were immortalized by “Rebel." The movie holds a 96% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (If you aren’t familiar with the movie critiques on Rotten Tomatoes, “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) has a 100% Rotten Tomatoes fresh rating; the recent “Lego Movie” received a 96%. You might need to adjust your own ratings according to your own taste.)
Most of the biographies of James Dean (such as “James Dean: Little Boy Lost” 1992 by James Hyams, “Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean” 1996 by James Spoto) are two to six decades old, but most libraries have them on their shelves. William Bast’s “Surviving James Dean," originally published in 1956 was recently updated and re-released in 2006 to a current audience of readers. Warren Beath is the author of “James Dean in Death: A Popular Encyclopedia of a Celebrity Phenomenon (2005).”
And so, it’s true that the popularity and mythic proportions of the short life of James Dean stay fresh and current for new generations. Over 60 years after his death, 20-year old Beyonce sang in her ballad “Rather Die Young” the lyrics “Boy you’ll be the death of me, you’re my James Dean. You make me feel like I’m seventeen. You drive too fast, you smoke too much.”
Better late than never, I watched two of the classic James Dean movies on a DVD available in the Minuteman Library catalog – “Greatest Classic Films Collection – Romantic Dramas.” Along with two of Dean’s classics, the DVD includes Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire" and Paul Newman in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
If James Dean might walk right off the screen and mingle with us today, we’d all recognize him, and that’s pretty amazing. His preppy sweater and blonde pompadour might look a bit old-fashioned and out-of-sync, yet his boyish swagger and angst-ridden smirk are here to stay. Rock on, Jimmy Dean.