1931-55                          Actor/Icon


J a m e s  D e a n

    James Dean (James Byron Dean)
    b. Fairmount, Indiana (1931-55)

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      If James Dean had lived he was set next to play in Somebody Up There Likes Me, proof that he could not always have expected parts or directors as good as Rebel and Ray

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    It is sad for any moviegoer to have no great star burning during his or her most impressionable years. Many stars, no matter how well they survive passing time, are only eminent because of the way they first mark consciousness. Once penetrated, we never forget the scar. And knowing what Dean meant in 1955 and 1956 makes it possible to understand how Valentino once moved viewer to the quick. It is reasonable to say that Dean and I came in together. Eight years earlier, Montgomery Clift in Red River had seemed a possible older brother; but Dean was oneself and, at first, one marveled in the way a savage might be awed by a mirror.

    I first saw Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (55, Nicholas Ray) at the Granada, Tooting. That is relevant because it was a huge and fabulously decorated cinema, the most beautiful I have known, modeled on a Venetian palace. It had mirrored corridors, the softest of carpets, and an interior so spacious that it was possible to evade the usherettes. Especially in the dark. I arrived early some ten minutes before the end of the previous showing. As I stepped into the auditorium, feet pushing through the pile, so, on the screen, Dean edged into the planetarium, doing what he could to talk Sal Mineo into surrendering to the police. Even then, it was apparent how far the moment drew upon Ray's use of color and composition. But so much also depended on Dean. He made it clear that he wanted Mineo's safety, but guessed already that the cause was perilous. Dean's cry of anguish when Mineo is shot down was the very antithesis of the film's inadequate title.

    No matter that it was seized on at the time, Dean's potency was not that of a rebel without a cause. Although he was vulnerable and sensitive, he never suggested youthfulness or callowness. On the contrary, he seemed older, sadder, and more experienced than the adults in his films. More than that, he seemed to sense his own extra intuition and to see that it was of no use. His resignation and fatalism showed up the restricted personality of the world he inhabited. Occasionally driven to anger or violence, Dean was not a rebel, but a disenchanted romantic, as brooding and knowing as the darkest Bogart—the Bogart of In a Lonely Place. Dean's isolation is that of profound understanding; and his dislike of the world, far from being causeless, was based on the extent to which the world had fallen away from its proper nobility, into vulgarity, materialism, and self-deception. America today is broken apart. But in 1955 it seemed whole, tight, and solid, except when Dean's tragic eyes surveyed it.

    He appealed to the young because he understood that youth knew some truths about the world that adults had looked away from: about the unfriendly cities, the instinct for violence, and forsaken emotional sensibility. The parents in Rebel are trite, hollow people: Ray signaled that by casting Jim Backus (Mr. Magoo) as the father. And in East of Eden (55, Elia Kazan), it is Dean alone who is prepared to make the trip from Salinas to Monterey, who bridges the worlds of his arrogant, puritan father and his resentful, unprincipled mother. It was through Dean's eyes and Kazan's dramatic skill that we saw no need to condemn either and no prospect of their ever living together. Thus he had a kind of bastard robustness horribly caricatured in his Jet Rink in Giant (56, George Stevens), too plain a film to sense Dean's depth. Nevertheless Dean was lucky with directors. Kazan gave him a charge, confidence, patience, and Julie Harris. But only Nicholas Ray could have given him a part that guessed at the looming alienation in America.

    Dean died in a car crash as Giant finished shooting. He was set next to play in Somebody Up There Likes Me, proof that he could not always have expected parts or directors as good as Rebel and Ray. He might have faltered, as often as Brando did. Equally, he might have become the man in Last Tango.

    Before fame, he won prizes playing an Arab boy in a Broadway version of Gide's The Immoralist, and then went to Hollywood and three small parts: Sailor Beware (51, Jack Arnold); Fixed Bayonets (51, Samuel Fuller); and Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (52, Douglas Sirk).

    When Dean died, Valentino had been gone just thirty vears. Now, Dean is over fifty years dead. Dean is not dated yet. New kids, without movie theatres to find him in, still fall under his sway. The poor man's version of Dean still come off the Hollywood conveyor with regularity (anyone remember Stephen McHattie?) but each new generation quickly consigns them to rebel without a clue. There will never be another like him. It's easier now to see Dean's intelligence, his dismay, and his sexual ambiguity. But he changed so much, in such a short time.

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