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James Dean Is Still Your Love Slave (Sort Of)…

While in a bookstore at Christmastime, I noticed that James Dean, a Hollywood icon dead fifty years, still has a large enough market audience for 2010 calendars with his pictures on the pages. In some ways, his continued popularity astonishes given that he only made three movies before dying in a car wreck at age twenty-four. Dean was certainly attractive in all of the standard physical ways (compelling eyes, strong cheekbones, a lithe frame), and in the rough, messy ways that subverted the clean-cut image of the previous generation’s male actors. Dean is a sexy goddamned mess, and people love him for it. His forthright, intentional imperfections (those heavy librarian’s glasses!) make his appearance more inherently appreciable; it gives his persona grooves and ridges, handholds. But there has to be more than physical attractiveness to account for his lasting following; I think we hold on to Dean because we Americans love mystery and complication, and we often charge our cultural symbols with the dubious responsibility of containing many of our buried wants, all of the “what-ifs” and “could-have-beens” that alternately fascinate and torment us.

Dean’s most famous movie, Rebel Without a Cause, reveals the hopelessness of the Silent Generation in its youth, a generation whose members felt marginalized and unfairly stigmatized in an era when teenagers had begun to be seen as wild, dangerous creatures who could only succeed by conforming to a raft of rigid G.I. Generation expectations. At the movie’s center is the restless, troubled Jim Stark, played by Dean, who seems stuck in his progression toward manhood with no admirable role models; he seems unattached to his life, uninvested, and with that detachment comes a recklessness that covers up his desire to be connected to others and loved by them. He finds that connection briefly with young male friend Plato (played by Sal Mineo, another talented young actor who died young), and girlfriend Judy (played by Natalie Wood, dead in her forties); the threesome forms an ersatz family, with Plato as the child that Jim and Judy care for. But, when Plato is accidentally killed at the end of the movie, Jim is thrust again into anguish.

As many have noted, Dean’s character in Rebel mimics many facets of Dean’s own life; he experienced domestic upheaval when he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle at age nine after his mother’s death, and he had very few intimate connections of his own, having one broken engagement early on, and another passionate relationship with actress Pier Angeli, who left him to marry Vic Damone, a singer whom she and her family considered more “stable.” Somehow not surprisingly, after two failed marriages and before dying of a drug overdose in 1971, Angeli admitted that Dean had been her one true love.

Maybe what Americans find so tantalizing about Dean is what seems to be going on beneath his performances: a varied, intricate personality that admirers can just now and then detect, a mystery that constantly renews itself and seems like it could support an infatuation indefinitely. He died young, and the collective reaction to his death, apart from grief, was the idea that few had ever really known him. He didn’t turn out his pockets for us on exit, or ever. Since we had so little time to know him, many of his admirers seem to focus on what his looks concealed, that hidden treasure of the most tempting kind: the kind we imagine. To really have known him would be to have had our imaginings erased.

The iconic images of Dean are the twenty-one plain, stark photos of him in a threadbare black sweater (known as the “Torn Sweater series,” taken in 1954 by Roy Schatt of Life Magazine) In these pictures, Dean is characteristically scruffy, handsome, and underslept; he holds no props and stands before a blank background. We have only to focus on his intensely demonstrative face and to make him a Just Man; we project our interpretations of him, on him. We provide the subtext, because he hasn’t elected to give us any, and our subtext is infinitely sexier because we’ve designed it and sent it back to ourselves through his Kodak paper eyes. We Americans make our archetypes; we depend on them for our yearnings. Dean’s popularity says a lot about us: that we need mystery and the undetermined, that we are capable of liking the record static as much as we like the record.

5 responses to “James Dean Is Still Your Love Slave (Sort Of)…”

  1. I think you just made me realize that I have a man crush on James Dean.

  2. Kail Kail says:

    Great piece, Sam. I'm obsessed with icons and iconography–especially the human kind. When I was in high school and college I had more James Dean, Jim Morrison, John Lennon, and Marilyn Monroe posters than I'd like to admit.
    I was fascinated with these people–and the images themselves–not just because I loved them as performers (and I still do) but also because of the mystery surrounding them, and the intriguing and varied ways in which they impacted so many throughout the world in the relatively short time they had. These people–include Elvis and Michael Jackson, too–are so popular and strange that something inside us is triggered immediately when we see them. Their images have been bought and sold and overused, branding them and commercializing them just like the most popular logos in the world, Coca-Cola, Nike, Microsoft, Apple, etc.
    But Dean and the others have something much more than those big companies which never die young–they get us to buy something much cooler, much more inspiring, even if a lot of it is created by us after they're gone…or in the case of MJ, after they've turned white, crazy, and probably evil.

  3. Avatar The Tailor says:

    I never really understood the big deal behind James Dean, now I think I'm starting to. Great piece, Sam.

  4. Avatar llxt says:

    I love the idea of a person as a subtext of culture. This is a long held pasttime of Americans (I'm now learning!), to revere the explorer, the novelist or, even, the President more for what he "represents" than who he really is. In a way, I'm okay with that. That fantasy to get to know a famous person wouldn't really pan out…I bet Dean wasn't half as impressive in person as he is in {those} photos.

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