February 8, 1931– James Dean:
“Forgive Quickly, Kiss Slowly.”
I had the above Dennis Stock photograph from 1955 as a poster in my dorm room in 1972. Original, huh? Because no other young male actor in the late 1960s and early 1970s was looking to James Dean for inspiration.
Until he was 18 years old his name was Jimmy Dean. He lived in a small town in Indiana, and he was a short, nerdy, basketball player with coke-bottle glasses and a big cowlick.
Six decades after the meteoric career of James Byron Dean, one thing now seems clear to me: This talented young man was truly gay. Just take a look at the outtakes from Rebel Without A Cause (1955) where the sexual heat between Dean and Sal Mineo is fully displayed. His affairs with men, mostly older father figures, are well documented now, more than a half century later, even if they were smartly hidden during his lifetime.
Dean had been groomed by the studios to be the vulnerable young male innocent, tormented, longing for freedom, and the true love of the right girl. They made sure that he acted it out in real life by setting him up on dates with starlets to be seen with in public.
In 1951, Dean had a job parking cars at CBS Studios. That is where he met Rodgers Brackett. Dean was a struggling 20-year-old actor and Bracket was a very successful 35-year-old executive at a prestigious advertising agency. The two guys began a romance and Dean moved into Brackett’s Los Angeles apartment. Brackett bought Dean nice clothes, took him to the best restaurants and introduced him to the people who might help his career. It was a classic “kept boy” scenario.
Dean’s agent expressed concern about the young actor living with a known homosexual. Dean’s explanation was: “I have my own room”. When people would whisper that his roommate was a queer, Dean answered: “Yeah, I know”. It may have appeared that Dean was using Brackett to further his career, but they remained buddies for the rest of Dean’s short life.
Brackett gave money so that Dean could move to New York City to study at The Actors Studio with famed acting coach Lee Strasberg. At The Actors Studio, Dean took a class taught by Marlon Brando. He stayed after the class to meet Brando, and they began a year long affair, but their friendship lasted forever. Dean emulated and adored his older actor buddy. Dean’s method of acting, even his gestures, was a copy of Brando. Later in life, Brando wrote:
“Like a large number of men, I too have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed.“
Noreen Nash, who played Lana Lane in Giant (1956), wrote how Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson had a bet over who would have Dean first. It seems that Hudson won that bet just a few days after shooting began. With Sal Mineo in the cast also, it must have been hot in Marfa, Texas during that shoot.
I have read several accounts that Dean was bisexual, but my friend screenwriter Gavin Lambert told me that everyone in Hollywood understood that he was only interested in men, and that his one great love was his Rebel Without A Cause director Nicholas Ray.
The studios set Dean up on those dates with women, but privately he dated actors Clifton Webb, Brando, and Jack Simmons. Dean avoided the draft by registering as a homosexual.
Rumors about Dean’s gayness began to spread as his fame increased and he quickly became engaged to fellow actor Pier Angeli. She abruptly broke off their engagement leading to even more gossip. In that era, like today, it was absolutely impossible for male leading men to be openly gay, and most gay actors like Rock Hudson agreed to the studio arranged marriages.
64 years ago, on a September day, while driving in his new Porsche 550 Spyder on US 101 near Salinas, Dean left this world. Forever after, there would be no reality left to mess with his myth. He was just 24 years old. Dean famously enjoyed driving fast cars. George Stevens, the director of Giant banned him from driving during the shoot. In a public service announcement Dean filmed just two months before his car crash, he urged young drivers to practice highway safety, saying:
“The life you save might be mine.“
Dean’s name appears in the screen credits of only the three films, but he also worked as an extra in at least four other films. He performed in dozens of early 1950s television episodes. One of his earliest roles was for the CBS series Omnibus in an episode titled Glory In The Flower, with Dean portraying just the type of disaffected youth he would later immortalize.
Dean became the first actor to earn a posthumous Academy Award nomination and the only actor to earn two posthumous nods. He lost both times. He wasn’t nominated for his defining role.
Tennessee Williams wrote of Dean:
“He was a rare combination of deep sensuality and deep sweetness.“
It is because Dean only starred in three films and lived a very short life that he has become a symbol for so many different things. Had Dean lived to enjoy the stardom that he achieved after his death, he probably would have ceased to be such an enigma. Today, Dean remains such a romantic and misunderstood figure. At least it can be said that he never made a bad film.
James Dean would have been 89 today. His death was tragic, ironic and iconic. I am sort of grateful that he didn’t live long enough to have played the guy who Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen have three-way with on Grace And Frankie . Or maybe that would have been really tasty.
“Being a good actor isn’t easy. Being a man is even harder. I want to be both before I’m done.“