This piece was published in this month's issue of our community magazine, Living @ sun City Carolina Lakes. I thought it might interest others of my readers who live elsewhere, or who might be so young that they don't even recognize the name James Dean (or even Elvis!)
Mention the name James Dean, and people of our generation think of a loner, a disillusioned, surly, misunderstood Rebel Without a Cause. He will always be young to us because he died so young.
James Dean would be 84 now, and we wonder not only what he might look like, but what he would have achieved had he lived as long as many of us have. Sixty years ago on this day in 1955, he died in a car crash. We do the math and realize that he was only 24. Only 24, and he had three major movies to his credit.
Indiana-born and raised, Dean moved to California in 1949 to start his post-high school education. He began in pre-law but soon changed his major to drama, something he’d studied and liked in high school. By 1951, he had dropped out of college and was acting in minor roles on television and in the movies. Listening to good advice, and having made some good connections, Dean moved east to New York City. This was the time of live studio presentations, and Dean appeared in productions for Studio One, The Kraft Television Theatre, Robert Montgomery Presents, and Omnibus.
|On the Kraft Television Theater|
In 1952, Dean was admitted to the prestigious Actors Studio to study acting under the master, Lee Strasbourg. From Bea Arthur to Joanne Woodward, the alphabetical list of Actors Studio alumnae includes dozens of names like Anne Bancroft, Marlon Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Julie Harris, Elia Kazan, Walter Matthau, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Sidney Poitier, and Eli Wallach. Dean studied among the best actors, writers and directors of the day.
Today, movies are just one of the many pastimes we can enjoy, but during the early fifties, movies were a major source of entertainment. Almost everyone knew of the major movie stars and the movies they were in. 1954, in one of the earlier Cinemascope movies, Dean was selected for the role of Cal Trask in Kazan’s production of John Steinbeck’s best-selling novel, East of Eden. Portraying the son of an idealistic, sanctimonious, successful farmer, Dean’s character wanted little except to gain his father’s approval.
|with Raymond Massey in East of Eden|
Right after East of Eden, released in March 1955, Dean continued on in the clash of generations, this time in the starring role. Rebel Without a Cause was an exploration of the confusion and frustrations of middle class suburban teenagers. Dean and his character, Jim Stark, became cultural icons, perfectly representing the so-called angst of the teenagers of the time. Such was its impact, that the movie, released a month after his death, was banned in some countries that feared it would contribute to juvenile delinquency. In other countries it was released with several scenes removed.
Dean’s last movie, released in 1956, was a co-starring role in the film version of Edna Ferber’s epic Giant, a story of the lives of a wealthy Texas family and the people surrounding and serving them. Dean died before the release of these last two films. He was nominated for two posthumous Academy Awards for Best Actor for his roles in East of Eden and in Giant
Dean, who owned motorcycles and fast sports cars, became interested in auto racing. He had ambitions of racing in the Indianapolis 500, but filming schedules put a stop to that. He did race in several local California races, and was on his way to one in Salinas when he collided with a car turning out on to the road. That driver walked away, Dean’s passenger was hospitalized, but Dean died at the scene. Thousands gathered for his funeral, and because of the accident his coffin was closed. Earlier that same year, photographer Dennis Stock had followed Dean around from coast to coast and to his home town of Fairmount, Indiana. While there at a local department store, by very eerie coincidence, Dean decided to pose in a coffin.