I’ve been thinking a lot about James Dean lately.
I always do this time of year, because September 30 marks the anniversary of his death in a fatal car crash in 1955 at the age of 24 in Cholame, California.
Even after 61 years, there are still events that commemorate his tragic death, including the Aero Theatre screening of his best-loved film Rebel Without a Cause, in which Dean tore up the screen as troubled high school student Jim Stark. It’s a film I’ve seen about 25 times and know most of the dialogue by heart. I even went up to the Griffith Observatory for my 22nd birthday so I could see where the knife fight took place between Jim and Buzz (Corey Allen).
My obsession with Dean began when I was eight years old. My mother took me to the Riviera Theatre in Miami one Saturday afternoon to see the reissue of George Stevens’ 1956 Texas epic Giant, starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Dean in his final film as Jett Rink, a rebellious ranch hand who becomes a ruthless oil baron
I knew Hudson from Doris Day movies, and though I had never seen Taylor in a movie, I certainly knew who she was because of her romance with Richard Burton. As soon as Dean walked on the screen, I was hooked. I had never seen anyone like that before on screen - the thick hair, those myopic blue eyes, the angst and pain. He went full throttle, earning his second lead actor Oscar nomination for his indelible portrayal of Rink.
When we walked out over three hours later, I declared my love for Dean to my mother and was heartbroken when she told me he had died several years before.
Four years later, I stayed up late one Saturday evening to watch East of Eden, his first starring role and the only film released while he was still alive. To this day the Elia Kazan-directed 1955 adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel is still my favorite Dean film performance. In this Cain and Abel story, Dean earned his first Oscar nomination as Cal Trask, the problem son of a stern father (Raymond Massey) who just wants his father’s love. But his father only has praise and affection for Cal’s well-behaved twin Aaron (Richard Davalos).
It’s a performance filled with pain, sadness, anguish, sweetness, and ultimately love and redemption. I was gobsmacked.
I was 14 when I caught up with Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, which also starred Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood and was released a month after his death. And once again, I couldn’t get him out of my mind.
I started collecting books on Dean, posters, and albums of the scores from his movies, and over the years have added the Blu-rays of his films, as well as a DVDs of his television work. I’ve kept everything.
As a reporter for 10 years at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and 26 years at the Los Angeles Times, I was able to interview those who worked with and knew Dean including Martin Landau, Julie Harris (who played his love interest in East of Eden), director Mark Rydell, and George Stevens Jr.
My favorite piece I wrote at the Times about Dean was for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s film department reunion screening of Rebel Without a Cause in the fall of 2000. I interviewed three of the actors from the film including Dennis Hopper, Steffi Sidney, and Frank Mazzola, who had once led a Hollywood gang called the Athenians.
“We chose Athenians because the guys were athletes, and some were scholars,” he told me.
The interviews were enlightening. And it was quite poignant to read the piece again because all three of the actors have since died.
Hopper was just 18 when he was cast in Rebel and thought he was the best young actor in Hollywood. Then he met Dean. Hopper recalled confessing to the actor, “I don’t have a clue what you are doing, but I know how great you are. What should I do? Should I stop my contract [at Warner Brothers] and go study with Lee Strasberg in New York?”
Dean confided in Hopper, telling him, “'you have got to start doing things and not showing them.' He said, 'you don’t have any preconceived ideas about how the scene is going to play. Just go on a moment to moment reality level and don’t presuppose anything.'”
|Sidney (left), Mazzola (center), and Hopper (top)|
Mazzola, who played Crunch and was also technical adviser, became fast friends with Dean and hung out with Mazzola and his club members.
Dean, he recalled, was concerned about playing a teenager at 24. “When I look back, I see why Jimmy wanted to out hang out with the club - because he wanted to get under the skin of the character. He would come to all the club meetings. My brother would have a little jazz trio over to the house and Jimmy liked to play the congas.”
Sidney, who was the daughter of Hollywood columnist and producer Sidney Skolsky, remembered a drive she took with Dean while the film was on location at the Griffith Park.
“When we were shooting at Griffith Park, one afternoon before lunch, we were both free,” she told me. “He said, ‘Do you want to take a drive?’ I said, sure. So he took me in his Porsche - not the one he got killed in - and we drove all around the whole Griffith Park curvy thing. I started talking to him and he said, ‘Don’t talk to me. I never talk when I am driving.'”
The last time she saw Dean was a month before he died, at a party for Frank Sinatra. “My father took me and Jimmy came with his then-girlfriend Ursula Andress, who couldn’t speak a word of English,” she recalled.
“He was very drunk. He came over to me and threw his arm around me and said, ‘We’ve never taken a picture together, Steffi.' I said, ‘Fine, let’s take a picture. ' Afterwards, he got thrown out because he was too drunk. But the 8x10s of that picture came on Sept. 30, 1955.”
It's a testament to his talent and magnetism that, with only three films, Dean made this kind of impact on cinema, culture, and so many individuals - myself included.
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.