If you were a teenager in the fall of 1955, the date of Sept. 30 probably burned itself into your consciousness then and most likely resides in your memory still. It is the day actor James Dean died in a tremendous car crash near Cholame, Calif., behind the wheel of his Porsche Spyder — an event that left its mark on more than just that generation.
It is said you shouldn’t read about the lives of the saints if you want to continue admiring them, because you’ll find they weren’t so saintly, especially in their conduct toward others. The same advice could be given to fans of pop-culture icons, though it would be pointless, since their strong faith is proof against any discouraging word.
No faith is stronger than that of James Dean followers, not even that of Rudolph Valentino disciples, another young actor whose tombstone became an altar. Fifty years after James Dean’s horrendous death, and nearly 75 years after his birth on Feb. 8, 1931, they literally still follow him: teenage girls, women in their 20s, grandmothers, young men, middle-aged businessmen. Every year they come in their thousands from every state and many foreign countries to his gravesite in Fairmount, Ind., to worship him and sing his praises.
Dean is as good an example as you can find of the fatalistic injunction to live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse — though since he died in a horrible automobile crash, we can’t be sure of the last part. But while alive, he certainly was good-looking, in that androgynous way of so many great stars (Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper); he lived (and drove) very fast in the short time of his celebrity; and he died young, at 24.
It is startling to realize that, had he lived, Dean would by now have appeared in dozens of films over more than a half-century. In fact, he starred in but three films, only two of which — “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause” — were his personal vehicles. In the third, “Giant,” he was secondary to Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.
His previous acting experience was negligible. Elia Kazan, his director in “East of Eden,” said he “was never more than a limited actor.” A roommate said he “was not an extraordinary person in real life; if anything, he was rather bothersome.”
Then why oh why, has James Dean meant so much to so many people for so long?
Donald Spoto caught the essence of it in his biography a decade ago, “Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean.” Mr. Spoto said the source of Dean’s appeal is exemplified by an occurrence in a high school play, when Dean “evoked and established something that would be part of his later trademark — an amalgam of tenderness and confusion that never failed to touch audiences.”
Mr. Spoto also saw that his attraction “had less to do with the real James Dean than with the really obsessive fans, who projected onto his image all their own confusions” and for whom he could be anything — and everything.
It also had to do with the rise of the post-World War II teen culture and its continuation through generations since. The core of his admirers has always been white, middle-class American boys and girls. He is the “perfect patron for comfortable loners.”
As for the older set (most of whom carry a torch lighted earlier in life), Mr. Spoto wrote, “it is very safe to fall in love with a dead person, for there can be no responsibility, no threat of loss, no challenge, no change.” Moreover, “Dean died before he could fail, before he lost his hair or his boyish figure, before he grew up.” He could always be the same, now and forever, “the hero of a new generation.”
Or, as Humphrey Bogart said, “Dean died at just the right time. Had he lived, he’d never have been able to live up to his publicity.”
He often was a surly, uncooperative, attention-seeking little snot — in both his professional and personal lives. Very possibly this is the result of his mother’s death when he was a child and of his absent father’s rejection (Dean was raised by a doting aunt and uncle). Most of what he did seems to have been an attempt to impress a father who didn’t give a damn (but who received all of Dean’s estate when he died).
But, as stated above, all this means little or nothing to his adoring fans, who, knowing all, dismiss all — except the central fact he once was. So they beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Roger K. Miller, a veteran newspaperman, is a free-lance writer.