The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best ed. Peter L. Winkler, Chicago Review Press, 368 pp.
In the trailer for Woody Allen's soon-to-be-released series for Amazon Prime, Allen's character -- a schlubby writer -- is telling his barber how he wants his hair cut. He takes out a photograph and hands it to the barber, who says, "That's James Dean." The barber informs Allen's character that he could work on his hair for a decade and he still would not look like James Dean.
It's been 60 years since James Dean's last motion picture was released -- and 61 since his untimely death -- and he is still a go-to icon of cool, a young man who had . . . something.
Just what that something was is the question at the heart of The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best, a rich and remarkably well-done anthology about the elusive movie star and apotheosis of youthful rebellion. Rather than going the overdone and often sleep-evoking route of soliciting media scholars to hold forth, this collection is rich with contemporary press accounts and descriptions from men and women who knew the actor well, from journalists like New York Herald Tribune West Coast bureau chief Joe Hyams, to co-stars like Shelley Winters, to more intimate friends, like Beverly Wills, whose contribution is titled “I Almost Married Jimmy Dean.”
The effect is Rashomon-like, with glimpses that cannot easily be reconciled into a full picture. Many of the memories are far from glittering. William Bast, Dean’s college roommate, recalls seeing one of his friend’s earliest acting roles, in which the UCLA drama major played Shakespeare with an “Indiana twang,” a performance that made it “obvious that James Dean was not one of UCLA’s outstanding acting talents.” An excerpt from an old James Dean biography offers the perspective of Rogers Brackett, the older gay producer who helped give Dean his start, while also living and sleeping with the much-younger star-in-the-making.
Other witnesses artfully capture James Dean’s peculiar magnetism. Jim Backus, who played Dean’s father in East of Eden (and Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island) recalled the young actor as a consummate craftsman. “He had the greatest power of concentration I have ever encountered,” Backus says. “He prepared himself so well in advance for any scene he was playing that the lines were not simply something he had memorized—they were actually a very real part of him.” Hedda Hopper, the hard-bitten Hollywood gossip queen, recalls being thoroughly unimpressed on first meeting Dean — “another dirty-shirttail actor” she scowled in her column. But then she saw a preview of East of Eden and found herself sitting “spellbound” in the screening room. “I couldn’t remember ever having seen a young man with such power, so many facets of expression, so much sheer invention,” she later recalled.
Dean’s reputation as one of the greatest actors of all time rests, remarkably, on just three films — East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant. Dean’s status as an icon is based on more ineffable things: his vulnerable good looks, his preternatural ability to be the center of any scene he was in, his diffident personality, and his attraction to the role of the rebel, on screen and off. The Real James Dean contains an excerpt from the only interview given by Dean’s real-life father — with whom he was not close — that cuts to the heart of things. “My Jim,” the elder Dean said, “is a tough boy to understand.”