It was 60 years ago today, September 30, 1955, when James Dean drove his Porsche 550 Spyder into the driver’s side of another car (a Ford Tudor). Dean was killed instantly while the other driver walked away with a few bruises. That this very young actor, 24 when he died, remains a film icon on the basis of only three leading roles—in movies that were released in less than two years, from 1955 through 1956—might just be the most curious phenomenon in the history of movies. Just a few weeks ago, we received at Booklist a galley of a new book, timed to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary, called Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: James Dean’s Final Hours. The fact that a publisher assumes—probably accurately—that a book offering a blow-by-blow account of Dean’s final hours could find an audience in the second decade of the twenty-first century is testament to the incredible durability of Dean’s status as a cult hero. If the spate of Dean-related books that appeared around the fiftieth anniversary of his death is any indication, Too Fast to Live will not be the only book on Dean to appear this fall. So what do we make of it? How has James Dean not only endured but prevailed, to paraphrase William Faulkner’s Nobel speech?
There was vulnerability, too, great heaps of it,
and that was what put him over the top.
Yes, Dean had a remarkable screen presence—the droopy eyes, the leather jacket, and the dangling cigarette from Rebel without a Cause; the nearly inaudible mumbling from Giant—but Marlon Brando wore leather jackets, drooped his eyes, dangled his cigarettes, and mumbled his lines while Dean was still serving as a stunt tester on the game show Beat the Clock. In fact, Dean idolized Brando, took up the bongos because Brando played them, bought a Triumph motorcycle because Brando owned one, and, in general, patterned himself in every way after his hero. Yet Dean is the cult figure, the icon referenced in dozens of popular songs. Yes, Brando had a long and distinguished career and is remembered as one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century, but he didn’t die in his prime. Not hardly. He died old, very fat, and very, very weird. Dean, on the other hand, is frozen in time with the red leather jacket, the ducktail, and the sneer that launched a thousand teen rebellions; contrast that with Brando’s 1994 appearance on The Larry King Show, a 70-year-old giggling Buddha, boasting an astounding belly and bare feet splayed on an ottoman. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to live.
So Dean had the good sense to die young, just as teenagers were feeling a little fidgety in the confines of Eisenhower-era America. Of course, Brando nailed that, too, in The Wild One, three years before Rebel without a Cause. Playing Johnny, the leader of a motorcycle gang, he famously answered the smitten Mildred’s perplexed question, “Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” by snarling the immortal line, “Whadda you got?”. But there was always some menace behind Brando’s snarl. Dean’s was different: there was defiance, sure, but beneath the surface, there was vulnerability, too, great heaps of it, and that was what put him over the top—not only with the card-carrying greasers but with the sensitive souls, male and female, who were too scared to snarl but wished they could. And there’s no better way to demonstrate your vulnerability than by breaking your neck in a car crash.
Six decades later, then, Dean is still snarling, still vulnerable, and still attracting would-be rebels with or without causes, both young and old. For them, we offer a brief bibliography of Dean-related books to accompany a celebratory viewing of the holy trinity: East of Eden, Rebel without a Cause, and Giant.
Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean, by Paul Alexander
Speculation about Dean’s sexuality has been rife over the years, fueled to some degree by this book, which offered the thesis that Dean was homosexual and that he “used this sense of angst, caused by his inability to live the life he wanted to lead, to spur him on as he relentlessly pushed the boundaries of his art.” (Others have argued that Dean was bisexual, and still others have contended that all that angst came from his break-up with actress Pier Angelli.) It’s hard to resist reading about the secret sexual history of a celebrity, but it’s unfortunate that Anderson didn’t devote a little more space to what Dean did out of the bedroom.
Dizzy & Jimmy: My Life with James Dean, a Love Story, by Liz Sheridan
Hold the phone! Another voice is on the line. Sheridan (who played Jerry’s mom on Seinfeld) reveals that she was once engaged to Dean and enjoyed a “sweet” relationship with him when they were both struggling actors in the early fifties. This is a gentle memoir entirely lacking in prurient interest, but it offers an intriguing portrait of the icon as a young actor. It’s hard to even think about this book, though, without imagining a Seinfeld scene in which George, Kramer, and Elaine react to Jerry’s news that his mom had sex with James Dean.
Giant, by Edna Ferber
If you’re like me, even though you’ve seen Giant multiple times, you still don’t have a clue what Dean’s character, Jett Rink, was saying through most of the movie. That’s because Dean’s performance set the absolute gold standard for movie mumbling. So why not read Edna Ferber’s novel, on which the movie was based, and find out once and for all what Mr. Rink was talking about. Ferber was celebrated in her day (her 1924 novel So Big won a Pulitzer), but she is pretty much unread today. Remarkably, this sprawling but hardly scandalous melodrama about a feuding family of Texas ranchers was quite controversial in its time, prompting virulent reactions from Texans who thought the Lone Star State had been unfairly satirized.
The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean, by Jack Dann
There would have to be an alternate-history novel in which Dean doesn’t die in the car accident, right? Of course there would, and Dann finally wrote it in 2004. Dean fans will have great fun watching their hero enjoy an affair with Marilyn Monroe, punch out Frank Sinatra, direct Elvis in a movie, star in Cool Hand Luke, and, eventually, move into politics with Robert Kennedy by his side. Interestingly, some of this is based on what might be called historical precedence: Elvis idolized Dean, for example, and the young Paul Newman actually broke through in Somebody Up There Likes Me, which Dean was under contract to do before his death; not a stretch to think Dean might also have starred in Cool Hand Luke. Fortunately, in Dann’s view, Dean does not get fat and do The Larry King Show in bare feet.
Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: James Dean’s Final Hours, by Keith Eliot Greenberg
This isn’t nearly as silly as the title and subtitle make it sound. Greenberg is an unabashed fan, and his attempt to reconstruct Dean’s state of mind during his last days and hours is, of course, highly speculative, but it’s also quite moving. This is one of those books that is as much about the author as it is about the subject, and the story of Greenberg’s attempts to sort truth from legend where Dean was concerned proves both intriguing on its own as well as suggestive of the hold Dean continues to have on pop culture.