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JAMES DEAN – 40 YEARS AFTER
by Robert R. Rees
September 30, 1955, James Dean is en route to a car race near Salinas, California. His personal race with life is coming to an untimely end. He has just completed his third picture in one year for Warner Brothers. With his mechanic, Rolf Weutherich, in tow, Dean speeds toward his premature date with fate. The time is 3:00p.m. Dean is ticketed by O.V. Hunter for driving 20 miles over the speed limit in his new Porsche Spyder.
On Highway 466, Dean heads west towards "East of Eden" country. The road is deserted and looks deceptively peaceful. Late in the afternoon, as the sun begins to set, his low-slung silver sports car blends into the surroundings about him. As he pushes the accelerator to the floor, he presses more quickly towards his inevitable destiny at Cholame near Paso Robles. The time is 5:59 p.m.
Suddenly, a 1950 Ford driven by student Donald Turnupseed emerges from the grayness of twilight on Route 46. Turnupseed attempts to negotiate a left turn in front of Dean in the rapidly approaching intersection ahead, Jimmy clearly has the right of way, but no matter. The other driver falters in his maneuvers. Now the Ford is coming towards Dean in his own lane.
The 24 year old star tries to avoid a collision by turning his steering wheel abruptly to the right. The sports car glances off the fender of the Ford, and is totally destroyed in a nearby ditch. Dean’s mechanic and the other driver survive the wreck,but for this American icon, the collision is fatal. September 30, 1955, James Dean the actor is dead, James Dean, the legend is born.
James Dean was born on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana. Both of his parents were raised in farming communities, as he, too, would be. His sensitive, frail mother, Mildred, arranges for Dean to take violin and tap dancing lessons. Together they explore the arts, and thoroughly enjoy an enthralling world of make-believe that briefly allows Jimmy to open a door inside himself that taps his rich imagination. His relationship with his mother is a short one because she dies of cancer in 1940, when Jimmy is only nine years old.
Later, as an adult, various friends report that this tragic life-altering incident marks Jimmy in many ways and that he never gets over this first devastating loss. He is reported to have said, "My mother died when I was wee; maybe that’s why I’m me."
Times are lean in 1940 for Jimmy’s father, Winton, who labors as a dental technician. Putting in long hours at the job, Winton feels inadequate to raise Jimmy as a single parent, and instead, arranges for Jimmy to live with his sister Ortense and her husband Marcus Winslow in the small town of Fairmount, Indiana. Ortense would remember "We were very fond of the boy. We wanted him. He loved acting. Jimmy pretty well tended to get what he wanted."
Helen Kirkpatrick, former Fairmount Museum Secretary and proprietress of one Easter pageant, recalls, "He was very independent. I never knew what to expect from him. In that pageant, he was about ten years old. I thought he’d never get in line and behave. Then he turned to me and huffed at the last minute, "Well, I told you I’d do it, didn’t I?", and he did! Afterwards, he came by and ate my cornbread and beans, a favorite of his."
Although the Winslows are good to him, Dean feels deserted by his mother and somewhat rejected by his cool, distant father Winton, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 88. This unhealed wound inside Jimmy would cause suffering when Dean became a grown man. Who knew this wound might indeed be mortal? Certainly some of the seeds of his conflicts and feelings of inferiority were to be sowed in fertile Hoosier ground in the 1940’s.
As a young boy, Dean decides he will excel in sports and the arts in spite of his parents’ absence. After all, by competing, by being the best, Jimmy, for a time, is able to chase away his demons of self doubt and low self esteem. Coached by his drama teacher Adeline Nall, James Dean wins a statewide contest for his interesting reading of a piece called "The Madman."
His drama teacher recalls that she tried to limit his stage business and contain his individuality to a degree. Being of the old school, Mrs. Nall insisted on a controlled, formalized approach and discipline above all. "I wouldn’t let him dangle a foot off of the stage. No way. But later he got away with it . . . and what a fine job he did. The last time I saw him he complained to me that in Hollywood the people were phoney. He said, ‘they are leeches. They are just hanging onto me.’ I said, ‘don’t forget to be kind.’ We were sitting at an intersection. We each tooted our car horns at each other. We were communicating." For what would be the last time. Dean was soon to drive into the pages of history–but for now, we’re still in Fairmount in the 1940’s.
Though by no means an honor student, Jimmy does quite well in basketball, track and baseball, and even sets some local records. When he’s not tending to farm chores or hanging out in town, he might be found on his Czech motorcycle "buzzing" the cows. When you ask his peers what he is like, you sometimes wonder if they are speaking about the same person. One girlfriend says, "He was a loner, a rebel. He was mysterious. He liked to be by himself a lot." You wonder if she is indulging in hindsight or adopting a revisionist’s agenda to history.
Another boyhood friend, Bob Pulley, adds "He was a regular, normal, average guy. We got together on double dates and drove around a lot in the car and had good times."
Shortly after graduating from high school, James Dean begins his search for self. He eventually ends up in New York City. He employs his agile, athletic ability easily when he lands a job on television’s "Beat the Clock". Not in front of the camera, but backstage. Jimmy’s role is to test out all the stunts and see if they can be done by the contestants.
At this same time, Dean lands his earliest acting job on film–a Pepsi commercial circa 1951. No rebel here, Dean plays a guileless, happy-go-lucky teenager who dances around a piano! No less surprising is his stint as the earnest, eloquent Apostle John on an early episode of the "Father Peyton" television series.
Although this brief appearance leads to the formation of the first Dean fan club, critics say "James Dean’s career doesn’t stand a prayer of a chance." Accordingly, bit parts in several movies lead to nothing much.
It isn’t until Dean enrolls in the Actor’s Studio that he begins creating an image of self that is born of raw, repressed emotions. The Actor’s Studio in New York promoted the idea that one draws on his own inner problems and hurts in order to express anger and sadness in a realistic fashion. This ruthless self-examination can open a Pandora’s Box of tormented demons in some highly charged, emotionally unsettled individuals.
Certainly James Dean has come a long way in his humble beginnings as an Indiana farmboy. That he is able to play troubled city-dwelling juveniles in numerous early 1950’s television productions attests to his growing flexibility and maturity.
Dean takes to the New York stage and stars in "See the Jaguar" and "The Immoralist". In the "Immoralist", Jimmy wins a Broadway Tony award for his acting. This is ironic, as his tenure is decidedly brief. In a move definitely "Dean", he gives two weeks notice on opening night in a fit of temper. Fate again intervenes in the person of one Elia Kazan.
The famous Hollywood director sees Dean during his short two-week run and signs him up to play the role of Cal in Warner’s EAST OF EDEN. Dean packs for Hollywood, lured by the possibility of making big money. By the time Dean appears in EAST OF EDEN, he has cultivated the Brando/Clift/Dean traits he would always be known for. There on the screen we see James Dean, the confused, violent, brooding, sensitive, young adolescent in conflict with himself, others, and society at large.
Unabetted anguish and difficulty with parent figures show up again in Dean’s next film, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. REBEL was probably Dean’s best known work, as it typifies the archetypal disturbed teenager of the times. Natalie Wood, Dean’s co-star in the film, offered, "I think he was not into drugs or anything spooky or weird.
It’s interesting that at that time he had such an impact–even before his death, then certainly with his death, and now still again all these years later. He was not a rebel, in the sense that he was not rejecting parents. He wasn’t sort of saying, ‘leave me alone, I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I’m going to do my own thing.’ He was really saying ‘Listen to me. Hear me. Love me.’"
Sal Mineo also starred with Natalie Wood and Dean in REBEL. Shortly before his death, Mineo recalled, "He was late a lot of times. He was difficult to get into a scene. The thing that I wanted to be one day was the way he dealt with people in a higher position."
REBEL co-star Jim Backus recalled when he and Dean were strolling through the Warner Brothers back-lot, that studio head Jack Warner approached Jimmy and was introducing another studio "bigwig" to him. Jimmy interrupted the introduction with a line from REBEL, turned, looked at the honcho, and said, "I think you need to have this suit cleaned and burned."
Now it’s summer 1955. We find an exhausted James Dean at work in his third film of the year called GIANT. As production goes on, Dean becomes restless, insecure and temperamental to work with. While fame and wealth bring about unexpected responsibilities and pressures, Dean is late on the set and doesn’t accept direction well. Regardless, Dean’s performance is customarily excellent. As surly ranch-hand Jett Rink, Dean has his most challenging role to date.
One of Dean’s co-stars, Rock Hudson, recalled "He, in my experience, had the most concentration of any actor I ever worked with. With certain actors, such as Jimmy, you just had to let him go and watch him. It was fascinating. I’d be in the scene myself and I’d be watching him because he was so good."
Dean mumbled his final lines so much so that later it was necessary to hire REBEL co-star Nick Adams to dub his last words. Ironically, Nick Adams joined Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood by dying tragically while still young.
At the 25th anniversary commemoration of James Dean’s death in Fairmount, Indiana, actor Martin Sheen eulogized, "It could be said of him that he saw through, that he crossed every boundary, that he spoke every language…and that he created one of this century’s most unique inventions…himself."
Jimmy once said, "Being a good actor isn’t easy. Being a man is even harder. I want to be both before I’m done." He also said, "If a man can bridge the gap between life and death…I mean, if he can life on after he’s died, then maybe he was a great man."
Had James Dean lived, would he have been one of our country’s greatest actors? There’s no question that he was a good actor who possessed power, subtlety and intensity. We are left with the legacy–his three starring films. All we can be sure of is that an electrifying presence continues to live on through the magic of movies. Dean left an indelible stamp, not only on the film community, but in our culture.
His impact is more private now, but we are still moved by his image. At one time or another we’ve all been young and lost, and in search of our identities. At the time of his death, Dean was doing what he said made him feel most alive. He said racing was the only time he felt whole and, like Icarus, the tragic Greek hero, he flew too high and left us too soon. By doing so, James Dean, a doomed artist, remains for us forever youthful.
Perhaps, in the final analysis, Dean remains in death largely what he was in life, an enigma. Webster’s defines an enigma as "a mysterious person difficult to understand or explain." He is this and more to many of us. We find solace in his performances that will continue to be part of the legacy of James Dean.
There is another eerie article by Bob Rees on this site
Robert Rees has his own home page with more Dean information. Please come back to my site eventually! Many thanks to Bob for letting us print his article here.
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