James Dean.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 19 2005 12:44 PM

James Dean

What would he have grown up to be?

See amazing photos of James Dean in this Magnum Photos gallery

Click image to expand. Jimmy Dean/ James Dean/ Rock on
Jimmy Dean/ (James Dean)/ Rock on

Fifty years ago, James Dean died in a violent car accident on his way to Salinas, Calif. His mangled Porsche was dispatched on a tour of the country soon after to scare kids into driving safely, only to be picked clean by fans lusting after a tangible piece of the Dean legend. None of this seems to have inspired a wave of judicious driving, but Dean's highly publicized death did make a lot of people want a Porsche. In a nod to that fateful plug, Porsche recently issued a special edition roadster designed to pay homage to Dean's 550 Spyder, unveiling it at the site of his grisly crash.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

A morbid stunt, perhaps, but morbidity has always been at the heart of the James Dean cult. Fans are keener to celebrate the anniversary of his death than his birth, and for the 50th they'll get to choose from the Porsche, a new book of photography, a new documentary, and his collected works on DVD. In June, 150,000 devotees are expected to make a pilgrimage to Marion, Ind., near Dean's rural birthplace, for the James Dean Fest. Tour buses will go to Dean's mortuary, the church that held his funeral, and to his grave, billed as "a pink granite headstone often covered in red lipstick from his fans wanting to leave something behind."

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The unnatural deaths of other popular icons have inspired bizarre conspiracy theories—and the occasional Elton John ballad—but Dean's followers take their obsession in another direction. They consider Dean's death part of his allure: By dying young, he preserved himself in amber, a Peter Pan in jeans and a red windbreaker. "Dean died before he could fail, before he lost his hair or his boyish figure, before he grew up," Donald Spoto writes in his admiring biography. Fair enough. But what lurks behind the celebration of the star's unsullied youth is a fear that, had he lived, Dean couldn't have topped what he'd accomplished by the age of 24 and might even have tarnished those feats. Those of us not making our way to Marion in June, however, may see promise rather than perfection in Dean's short career—and wonder where a full career might have taken him.

The pessimism about the future that Dean didn't have is pervasive and is shared by film critics along with the fans. David Thomson, whose entry on Dean in his indispensable NewBiographical Dictionary of Film is one of the book's most passionate, attributes Dean's singularity to his eternal youth. Like others, he evokes the specter of Marlon Brando as the alternative. Brando "went from beauty to wreck," Thomson told the Orlando Sentinel recently. "Dean stays the same." Even Brando's biographer seems to pine after Dean's fate. "There is much to be said for dying young in circumstances melodramatically appropriate to your public image," writes Time's Richard Schickel. "There is very little to be said for living long and burying that image in silence, suet and apparent cynicism."

It's true that Dean never had the chance to get fat and make Brando's mistakes (paging Dr. Moreau!), but he also never had the chance to achieve Brando's later successes (Last Tango in Paris, The Godfather). Or to improve upon his own. It's not that Dean made only three films—Joyce wrote only three novels. It's that when you sit down and watch his pictures, you notice that they betray Dean's limitations and show the promise, more than the realization, of greatness. Before his death, Dean had proved only that he could play an angsty, estranged teenager—himself, in other words. His two most famous roles, Cal Trask in East of Eden and Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, are variations on that theme. Dean played them with an unabashed inwardness and awkwardness that was new in the mid-1950s. His intensity riveted the era's moviegoers. But there's a "you had to be there" aspect to Dean appreciations that leaves some of us who weren't cold.

If Dean deserves credit, nonetheless, for inventing the troubled teenager, that accomplishment was as much a triumph of casting as acting. Elia Kazan, Eden's director, gave Dean the part of Cal because he knew Dean had lived it. Dean's mother, who nurtured his creative energies, died of cancer when her son was 8, after the family had moved to Los Angeles. His father promptly shipped James back to the Indiana home of the boy's aunt and uncle—on the same train as his mother's body. Dean eventually returned to L.A. but never reconciled with his father. Kazan saw the two together before taking the actor to his screen test for Eden, sensed a deep tension between them, and knew that if he could sneak the unrefined Dean past the studio execs, he had his Cal. "There was no point in trying to cast it better or nicer," the director told Dean biographer David Dalton. "Jimmy was it. He had a grudge against all fathers."

In East, Kazan stoked that grudge by placing Dean opposite a father (played by the upright Raymond Massey) who was more concerned with perfecting a method of freezing lettuce than figuring out his troubled son. Dean turned in a performance that launched his star. Then he basically reprised the role in Rebel. Massey was replaced by Jim Backus, the doddering voice of Mr. Magoo, and portrayed a dad who is less distant than plain weak. Backus parades around the house in an apron, lives in fear of his overbearing wife, and drives his son crazy by never standing up for himself. Near the end of the film, Dean's Jim Stark just can't take it any more. He throws his father to the floor and starts strangling the life out of him.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with channeling personal experience to play a part—without that where would Eminem, for example, have been in 8 Mile? But when Dean didn't have his biography to fall back on, he fell flat. The last film he appeared in, Giant, George Stevens' epic about Texas, exposed the limits of the actor's talent. He plays a wildcatter-turned-oil baron named Jett Rink, and there's no father figure out in the oil fields for as far as the eye can see. Dean mumbles his way through the part, getting less and less believable and intelligible as the movie progresses and Rink's character ages. By the end, Dean looks like a kid playing grown up. Or as Kazan put it: "He looked like what he was: a beginner."

What would Dean have been like as a seasoned veteran? It's possible that he would have deteriorated physically and professionally, as Brando did. But it's also possible he would have honed his craft and become something greater than an actor who could play a version of himself. Early poster-boy success need not be a harbinger for subsequent failure. Think of another Dean contemporary, Paul Newman.

Before his car crash, Dean talked of two projects he dreamed of doing. One, a screen adaptation of his favorite book, Antoine de Saint Exupéry's The Little Prince, probably wouldn't have stretched him—it would have been another film about children whose parents don't understand them. The other project Dean wanted to do was also a story about a mixed-up son who doesn't know how to please his father. But to have been a convincing Hamlet, Dean would have had to draw on more than his travails with his own father—there's a difference between teenage angst (who am I?) and existential angst (to be, or not to be?). Hamlet might have been the perfect stepping stone toward something bigger for Dean. His signature torment could have changed the role (Hamlet to Ghost: "You're tearing me apart!"), but the role might have taught him something as well. Something, perhaps, about growing up. His fans should wish he'd lived to play it.