Many years ago in my mid-teens I was in Manchester doing pretty much what I have always done, then and now, whenever I have free time on a Saturday, either looking at records in a music store or looking at books in a book shop.
In 2015 there are not many record stores left; the whole culture of buying records is a different ball game these days, downloading instead of taking home a hard physical copy. Anyway, that’s a whole different blog. To get back to this one, back in that record shop I’d thumbed through the discs, checked out all the cheap records and then began flipping through the posters. This must have been mid-seventies so the posters were people like David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Elton John, Rod Stewart but there was one poster of a man in his mid-twenties wearing a white t-shirt and jeans. He was pulling a moody sort of look but there was something about him that was interesting. Anyway, he turned out to be an actor that I’d never heard of and the shop assistant pointed out a book about him in the store, a paperback, so I picked it up and read about the actor’s life. He was called James Dean.
Dean was born in Indiana and his mother died of cancer when Dean was only nine years old. There is a haunting passage in that paperback I bought that tells of how Dean’s father, Winton, sent little Jimmy Dean back to his Aunt and Uncle’s home in Indiana on the train carrying his mother’s coffin. Jimmy was brought up in Marion, Indiana by his Aunt Ortense and Uncle Marcus and later went to college to study acting.
His first movie was East of Eden directed by Elia Kazan who had introduced method acting to the American stage and had worked with Marlon Brando in ‘A Streetcar named Desire’. ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ was Dean’s next movie. Directed by Nick Ray it is probably Dean’s most iconic film. This is the movie in which Dean wears his famous outfit of red jacket, white t-shirt, and jeans.
His third and last movie was ‘Giant’ in which he stars with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and plays Texan bad boy Jett Rink. Dean was killed in a car crash only days after finishing shooting. He was a keen amateur racer and had bought a new Porsche speedster only days earlier. The car, nicknamed ‘little bastard’ had collided with another vehicle, a station wagon at the junction of route 41 and 466. Dean suffered a broken neck and was declared dead on arrival at a hospital in Paso Robles.
I was looking through my old VHS videos the other day and I came across a documentary called ‘James Dean’s last day’. It’s an interesting film and a sad one too as it counts down Dean’s last hours, his leaving Hollywood and his departure for a racing event at Salinas. There are so many ‘if onlys’ that unfold before me as I watch the film: I keep thinking if only Dean had left the Porsche on the trailer instead of driving it to the race track. If only the speeding ticket he was given a few hours earlier had made him slow down. If only a man called Donald Turnupseed had seen Dean and not turned across him. Such a shame, such a tragedy. Dean, I’m sure, would have gone on to make so many more great films and perhaps would even have directed some too.
I’m not sure why a council house boy from Northern England should connect so closely with James Dean, an American actor but back in the seventies Dean became one of my personal heroes. I remember going to a cinema in Oxford road to see back to back showings of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause on a very hot summers day. I bought a soundtrack album of those movies too, in the days before video and DVD. Dean was a counterpoint to actors like Richard Burton; he mumbled and mispronounced things. I think that was what I liked about him, he was natural and imperfect. He had an image more rock star than 50’s actor. There was a great documentary about him made in the 70s and the music of the times, Bowie and Elton John featured heavily. Anyone remember that eagles track ‘James Dean?’
Today, years later, thousands of fans make pilgrimages every year to see Dean’s home in Fairmount, Indiana, and to the intersection on highway 466 where he died. At his graveside in Fairmount fans chisel away bits of his gravestone for mementos and a bust of Dean by the sculptor Kenneth Kendall was ripped from its plinth. In 1977 a Japanese businessman named Seita Ohnishi had a chromium sculpture erected at the crash site on highway 466 in memory of Dean.
So why do people still hanker after James Dean all these years later? Well, I simply don’t know. As a young man I thought Dean was the epitome of cool and like many others I made him into my hero. Whilst doing some research about Jimmy Dean I came across this line on another site: “Some people are living lodestones. They get under the skin of people. You can’t explain why.” I can’t disagree.
Still, heroes come and heroes fade away. My heroes today are not the ones I used to love and worship thirty years ago. The thing is though, after writing this essay about Jimmy Dean I felt that I must find the time to look at some of his films again. Did I happen to mention what I bought in the HMV sale not long ago? The James Dean Box Set. Perhaps old heroes never completely fade away.
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