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.