Celebrated biographer and journalist Paul Alexander talks about the short life of James Dean and how his death immortalized him as a cultural icon. Paul’s new biography, Being James Dean, is now available.
September 30, 1955. It’s a date that has become so infamous that for years now movie fans mark it with tributes. What happened on this day? At 5:59 p.m., on a stretch of two-lane highway in Northern California, James Dean died in a car crash. Driving his silver Porsche Spyder 550 convertible, Dean, an amateur sports car driver, was on his way from Los Angeles to Salinas to compete in a race the next day. He was driving too fast. He had not turned on his headlights. As a result, his speeding silver car blended into the coming twilight so completely Donald Turnipseed, a college student in a Ford sedan, did not see Dean and made a left-hand turn in front of him. Dean tried to swerve but it was too late. The violent collision sounded like a small explosion. Dean died on impact. He was pronounced dead on arrival when he was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. He was twenty-four years old.
At the time, he had made three pictures, but only East of Eden, Elia Kazan’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, had been released. A student of Stanislavski and a member of the Actors Studio, Dean portrayed the troubled Cal Trask with such power, displaying such raw emotion, that he invited comparisons to Marlon Brando. Then, within days of Dean’s death, Rebel Without a Cause came out. Audiences were stunned by Dean’s unnerving portrayal of Jim Stark, the disillusioned teenager who rebels against his family, authority figures, and, finally, society in general. With this picture, Dean became the teenage Everyman who spoke for a generation repressed by the conservatism of the fifties. Soon a myth began to form around Dean that was only enhanced when Giant was released in 1956. In his final picture, an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s epic novel about the Texas rich, Dean’s Jett Rink, who ages from a youthful, evocative cowboy to a hunched-over, alcoholic oil baron, was a tour de force.
Over the years, the Dean myth grew, and a generation of actors — Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino — emerged shaped by the emotive, highly personal style Dean perfected. Calling him “the inspiration,” Pacino has said, “The person I related to was James Dean. Rebel Without a Cause had a very powerful effect on me.” But Dean was an influence beyond acting. In the sixties, he was a symbol of rebellion to a youth discontent with the status quo. In the seventies, he would come to represent the very ideal of individual freedom. “It is quite possible that the James Dean mystique,” The New York Times notes, “which persists to the present day, might not have been as intense had he lived longer, but like so many others untimely ripped from our midst — Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon — James Dean has transcended mere idol status and entered the hallowed halls of Legend.”
As an early biographer of James Dean, I have continued to document his life and impact. On the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of his death, my new portrait, Being James Dean, explains why as the decades go by our fascination grows.