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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,141

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This is the grave of James Dean.

Born in 1931 in Marion, Indiana, Dean lived there for a few years but spent quite a bit of his time growing up in California, where his father, a dental technician, moved to work there. But then his mother died of stomach cancer in 1940, after two years of terrible pain. This devastated the young boy, who was very close to his mother. His father wasn’t really able to take care of him (or perhaps didn’t really want to) and sent his son back to Indiana to live with his aunt and uncle in the small town of Fairmount. That’s where he grew up. In fact, his father was absent for years because he fought in World War II.

So Dean was back in Indiana but he knew California and he knew which was better. Seriously, I visited this place back in January and…….it’s not great. Moreover, Dean was sexually abused by his Methodist pastor in Indiana. That stayed with him his whole life, as one would imagine. Still, he managed to become both a star student and a star athlete. He was big and strong and played on the school baseball and basketball teams. He had charisma and was a good public speaker. As soon as he graduated in 1949, he got the hell out of Fairmount and moved back to Los Angeles, living once more with his father and now a stepmother. He enrolled at Santa Monica College and then transferred to UCLA. But when he switched his major from pre-law to drama, his father basically disowned him. Dean didn’t seem to care much. He was selected to play Malcolm in the school production of MacBeth and this was no small thing, not at a school like UCLA where talent scouts hung out. He was good at it and he dropped out of school to pursue acting full time.

It didn’t take long for the talent scouts and studios to find out about James Dean. He nabbed a spot in a Pepsi commercial right away. He got a bunch of tiny roles in films, the kind that didn’t really pay any money but which Hollywood fills up the set with. He was also parking cars at CBS to make ends meet. While there, he met Rogers Brackett, who was an ad guy with connections as well as an occasional producer of radio shows. They became friends and Brackett became his mentor. Brackett had Dean cast in a radio show. Then Dean went to New York to go to the Actors Studio and work in the many productions filmed there. He got a whole bunch of TV roles during the early 50s this way, just small stuff but the kind of thing an actor needs to improve their resume. His big break came when he was cast in a theatrical production of Andre Gide’s The Immoralist. Hollywood came a’callin.

It was Elia Kazan who brought Dean to Hollywood for East of Eden. Sort of anyway, Kazan had no idea who he was but he wanted a Brando-type for the role of Cal but Brando didn’t take the role himself. So he needed to find some young brooding type who could also act well. And that was Dean in a nutshell. John Steinbeck was deeply involved in the making the picture and so he met Dean….and hated the kid. But he admitted that he would work for the part. So Dean got cast, the film was a blockbuster and a short-lived star was born. It’s easy to somewhat dismiss Dean’s acting chops because he’s been such a romantic star remembering in a nostalgic haze for so long. But that’s not fair. He really was a very fine actor, someone who improvised frequently throughout the picture, including in many of the iconic scenes of the film that were not in the script.

Dean immediately followed East of Eden with Rebel Without a Cause, one of the all-time iconic roles. The film itself is more than a little ridiculous. Crisis of masculinity anyone! The scene with Jim Backus as the father wearing an apron to show how far masculinity had declined is absolutely 100% eyerolling. I don’t need to sum up the movie of course; if you’ve never seen it, huh? It’s a strange film really, but it holds up as well as The Wild Ones with Brando, if not better, as an entrypoint into the weird crisis of youth/crisis of masculinity stuff in the 50s. It’s a functional film at worse, if more than a little dated. In any case, Dean could do iconic young punk as well if not better than Brando. I suppose Brando is the better actor, but it’s not as if the difference was thaaaaat much.

Dean was a smart actor and knew he was on the point of being typecast. So he wasn’t going to take another brooding young man role. Instead, he took the lead in Giant, working with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor under the direction of George Stevens. Another solid film and maybe more than solid in the end, depending on how well you think it holds up.

But by the time Giant was released in 1956, Dean was dead. Unfortunately, he was a lot like his roles–a young punk who was ready to risk death for a good time. This is a huge part of his legacy and it distracts from the clear potential he showed as an actor, but that’s on him for making those choices. When you are obsessed with driving very fast, well, you take the risks. Dean was driving a racing Porsche incredibly fast down a highway to break it in before a race. As sometimes happens, there was a driver in the other lane. Dean, already ticketed for speeding that night, slammed into the car and he died. He was 24 years old.

Of course, Dean influenced an entire generation. He was one of the real icons to young Boomers and Boomer-adjacent men looking to be rebels. That very much included Bob Dylan who desperately wanted to be a Dean-esque character, not to mention Elvis Presley, who studied him very closely. Dean was a rock and roll kind of guy, even if he died before rock had really hit the big time. It’s worth wondering here what Dean’s career would have been like had he lived. He likely could have been a fantastic actor in his mid to late 30s during the revolution in Hollywood and could have had many iconic roles in a world that allowed for more real expression. Alas. Stay out of the race cars.

James Dean is buried in Park Cemetery, Fairmount, Indiana. It’s not worth going there. It’s a really terrible place.

If you would like this series to visit some of the actors Dean worked with, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Natalie Wood is in Los Angeles, as is Jim Backus. I have already visited Sal Mineo, as you may recall. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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