Monday, September 30, 2013
Had he lived, James Dean would be 82 years old now.
Instead, on this day 58 years ago, he was killed in an auto accident on the way to a car race in Salinas, in which he was scheduled to participate. He was 24 years old, had starred in three major films, done some television and theater. Not that much, when you really think about it. On the other hand, he earned two Academy Award nominations as Best Actor in a Leading Role (both of them posthumous) out of those three starring roles and to this day he is a legend, with up and coming actors still trying to imitate his look, his style, and his talent. He has inspired books, films, and other art.
It's difficult to know what to write about James Dean and his short, illustrious career, because so much has already been said and written about him. On the other hand, as a fan of his work, I'm finding it even more difficult to let the day pass without remark.
James Dean was a good actor. That much is obvious from watching "East of Eden" (1955), "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) and "Giant" (1956), the three films in which he starred. It is impossible to know if he would have continued growing as an actor and expanded his range - because, goodness knows, the three roles he is so acclaimed for are really very similar in a lot of ways. = or whether he would have failed to live up to the promise of those early roles.
Not that matters much now. The fact is that he only left a small but notable body of work, performances that mostly hold up over the years and to repeated viewings. Sure, "Rebel Without a Cause" seems very much a film of the time it was made, and light-years away from the lived experience of teens today. But, that film helped define what it is to be a teenager at a time when the expectation was that individuals went from child to adult with no real intermediate stage. The teen experience might be different in detail today, but the angst that Dean's character, Jim Stark, goes through is still recognizable in kind.
One thing I think needs to be remembered, though, is that James Dean did not emerge full-grown as an actor in those three films. Besides the work he did on stage and on television before "East of Eden", he had small roles in three films, "Fixed Bayonets!", "Sailor Beware", and "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" The only one of those three in which he had any lines at all (and all he had was one line) was "Sailor Beware" (1952), which starred Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Even mostly in the background in his scenes, James Dean is, well, noticeable:
One thing is sure, and that is that James Dean is not just an American icon, but has fans all over the world. This is exemplified by a memorial just down the road from where Dean died, in Cholame, California. The memorial, which is the parking lot of a roadside restaurant, was built by a retired businessman from Japan, is simple and dignified, and includes a quotation that is said to have been one of Dean's favorite, from "The Little Prince": "What is essential, is invisible to the eye."