Every year, during the last week
of September, people from all across America — and countries as far away as Australia — invade the small Indiana town of Fairmount for three days of dancing, races, parades and contests, all in celebration of local hero James Dean.
It was 53 years ago, on Sept. 30, 1955, that Dean’s Porsche Spyder smashed into a Ford sedan on California Route 46 and was demolished in an instant. Although the driver of the sedan was unhurt, Dean, whose neck was twisted and broken, had no chance. For just a few seconds, as Dean was lifted into the ambulance, a friend said he heard “a soft cry escaping from Jimmy — the little whispering cry of a boy wanting his mother or of a man facing God.” And then there was silence. The troubled young man was dead at 24, and a cult was about to be born.
Sadly, we barely got to know Jimmy Dean. He only made three movies. And prior to his death, he had been seen on-screen in only one film, “East of Eden.” But four days after the tragic accident, Warner Brothers released “Rebel Without A Cause,” a melodrama about juvenile delinquency with Dean in the title role. Young people identified with Dean’s angst-ridden portrayal of Jim Stark, a middle-class kid frustrated by a domineering mother and a weak father. When Dean appeared onscreen in his trademark red jacket, he was like no one we had ever seen. “Rebel” was a box-office sensation, and it signaled the evolution of a new generational wave that was about to break over the country.
At the premiere of “Giant” in 1956, when Dean first appeared on screen, one girl stood up in the audience and cried, “Come back, Jimmy, I love you. We’re waiting for you!” There were tribute records and special television showings of Dean’s early dramas. Photoplay readers voted him number one in the actor popularity poll — the first time a dead person had taken top honors.
In real life, James Dean was much like the character he played in “Rebel” — a psychologically troubled young man raised in a broken family. Known mostly for his attitude, Dean’s life was marked by pain. Sullen and painfully vulnerable, he was tormented by an offensive world and his own internal desolation. “I try so hard,” Dean once wrote to a friend, “to make people reject me. Why?”
Dean smoldered as an actor with such heat that the plots of his movies seemed to melt into nothingness around him. Dean was tough but tender, brooding but clownish, and defiantly sloppy in his looks and behavior.
More so in death than in life, fans continue to stalk, scavenge and pay tribute to the memory of him. Since 1955, Dean’s gravestone in Fairmount, Indiana, has had to be replaced many times because souvenir hunters take pieces for luck.
Dean expressed a changing state of mind that his audiences did not completely understand but intuitively embraced. Dean has been mimicked, consciously or not, by virtually every male teen idol, from Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan to Brad Pitt.
It was no accident that Dean entered the American consciousness when he did. The country had just emerged from a devastating world war. The atomic bomb had rained death over Japan, and America was in the grip of anti-Communist hysteria. A revolution was occurring in the arts, music, literature and the sciences.
America had fulfilled its long struggle for material progress from the Depression through World War II. The affluent society, however, produced a reactionary subculture that saw it as dehumanizing. Dean and his following were a foreshadowing of the generation crisis that would come to full bloom in the 1960s.
“Adolescents rejected the repressive conspiracy of conformity and denial on which the material utopia of their parents was built by living out their fantasies through movie stars and rock music,” writes David Dalton in his insightful book, “James Dean: The Mutant King.”
Dean was a very good actor, but he has proven to be a much better icon. In death, he has become something he would not have been had he lived — a marred, stained-glass window saint, on whom the frustrations of anyone could be attached. “He became,” as Donald Spoto writes in his book “Rebel,” “the patron of the disaffected, the excuse for many to hide behind a certain type of dark Peter Pan-ism. We will fly away, disappear forever, he seemed to say.”
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.