The 30th of September, 1955, will forever be remembered as the day cinema lost one of its most prodigal stars in James Dean, who tragically perished in a car crash 28 miles northeast of Paso Robles, California. It was approximately 5.45 pm on a Friday evening, when the star’s newly acquired Porsche 500 Spyder that he nicknamed ‘The Little Bastard’ cannoned into a 1950 Ford Sedan, driven by college student Donald Gene Turnupseed, who only saw Dean’s car at the last second at the junction of US 466 and Highway 41.
Dean was only 24 years of age, his climb to stardom just beginning after three successful ventures, East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without A Cause (1955), and Giant (1956). It was Nicholas Ray’s Rebel, the story of disaffected youth Jim Stark that made the young Dean a cultural icon, but East of Eden is widely considered to be the picture that truly displayed his tenuous, tortured approach to the craft of acting.
Born at 2am in Byron Indiana, on February 8th, Dean was an only child who, without the company of another sibling at home, began to develop a vivid imagination from an early age, his mind providing him with the playmate a young child yearns for in their tender years. He was very close to his mother, Mildred Wilson, who was said to be “the only person capable of understanding him”. Harrowingly for the fledgling Dean, Mildred died of cancer on July 14, 1940, when he was just 9 years old. Tragedies such as these are frequent occurrences in the lives of those who operate in the acting circle, and the anguish Dean suffered was undoubtedly one of the reasons why he gravitated towards acting, giving him the opportunity to purge himself of the pain he must have suffered daily, if only for a little while.
During his childhood Dean’s family had moved to Santa Monica, California when his father, Winton Dean, left his job as a farmer to become a dental technician, and it was at UCLA where he got his first real taste of theatre where he studied drama for one semester, appearing in a production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth during his brief period of study. The adolescent Dean was never much of a scholar, possibly down to his lack of concentration on the theoretical aspects involved, another common trait of talented actors, who are compelled to be proactive psychophysically. Dean quit college to pursue acting full time and was soon taken on by an agent named Isabelle Draesmer, who secured Dean’s first television appearance in a Pepsi advert in 1950. The initial taste of exposure invigorated the aspiring actor, and in October 1951 he moved to New York City in the hope of realising his dreams.
New York City, with its towering skyscrapers, winding streets, and array of bright lights, promised to be a huge test of Dean’s nerve, and one that many a young dreamer had surrendered to at the first hurdle, but Dean’s character proved to be tough enough in his first tentative steps towards the big time, for his ambitions were as strong as oak. After a few television appearances, he was accepted into the world famous Actor’s Studio to study Method acting under the guidance of the legendary practitioner Lee Strasberg. Such a privilege was bestowed on only a small minority, and the Studio has a near impeccable reputation for producing some of the finest actors in history, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman to name but a few. Realising his fortune, Dean once referred to the institution as “the greatest school of the theatre”. After honing his craft, what followed is known by all those who have become arrested by the legend of James Dean, a man who lead a wild, fast life abounding with controversy, romance, and more importantly, personal acclaim.
Even today, 57 years after his demise, hordes of young people in many corners of civilisation still hold a candle to the actor, bound together by a powerful reverence to their hero, frozen in time in his Harrington jacket, stonewashed Levi’s, and dusty engineer boots with the glimmering silver buckle. In his lifetime he divided opinion, particularly amongst his colleagues, with Rock Hudson referring to him in less than flattering tones; “…he was a prick…he was selfish and petulant, and believed his own press releases.” On the other hand, Lee Strasberg highlighted his sadness at the passing of his student during a lecture at the Studio; “If there is anything in the theatre which I respond to more than anything else…it is the waste in the theatre, the talent that gets up and the work that goes into getting it up and getting it where it should be. And then when it gets there, what the hell happens with it? The senseless destruction, the senseless waste, the waste of talent…the waste of your lives…” Talent is the word which should always follow the memory of James Dean for eternity; it is the single most crucial thing that a performer should be remembered for in the hearts and minds of their fans, for men like James Dean gave so much of themselves to the lens of the camera, offering all the contortions and all the beauty they could muster for our entertainment. James Dean could have given so much more, and unfortunately it was the contribution of his mortality that was all he had left on that fatal day in 1955.
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