High Times Greats: James Dean

An appreciation of the legendary actor.
High Times Greats: James Dean
James Dean by Dennis Stock/ Magnum

When James Dean died in 1955 he was only 24 years old with just three films under his belt. Those pictures made him the symbol of our age and his tragic end gave America one of its first pop icons. 65 years after his untimely death on September 30, we’re republishing Mike Wilmington’s tribute, originally printed in the April, 1981 issue of High Times.

He was the kid in denim, the kid in leather; the kid on a motorbike; the kid with a joint, hash, peyote, bennies; the kid who fucked and sucked, and, grinning, let himself be fucked and sucked in return. He was the lost kid, the kid without a ma, with a distant disapproving dad; the kid—alone—who liked to prowl the streets past curfew, in wind-strewn alleyways and under the garish, winking neon. He was the kid on the road, on a chopper, a “whizzer” or a Porsche, gobbling up the asphalt in a sensual fury. He was the moody kid, the kid with Cocteau and Colette on the shelf, “progressive jazz” piping on the hi-fi, hands idly tapping on bongos. He was the kid with a cocked eye and a smirk and a flagrant hard-on, the kid who liked to unzip his fly in front of shocked rubberneckers; narcissistic, with “tongues of fire” for a hairstyle, and half-blind eyes peering out from a crooked, oddly beautiful face—the kid who knew his marks absolutely, and knew how to hook them.

And he was the kid from the farm, from prairie-corn-and-sunny-highway-flat Indiana, with straight A’s on his report card and basketball and track letters, the kid from “good, hard-working, Christian” stock—with the mask of silence and the evil glint in his eye. He was the kid who’d been indulged and loved and never understood, the kid whose mother named him after Lord Byron and whose first intellectual mentor was a preacher named De Weerd. He was the show-off, the joker, the kid who liked to scare the shit out of you with his crazy stunts and weird trips. He was the kid on the bottom, the used and abused hustler scrambling for a break. He was the kid on the flashing Hollywood marquee, a hundred feet high in the blazing night, with millions of women and thousands of men lusting for his ass.

He was the fresh, sweet kid who’d tasted poison… and caught the savor in its sting. He thought he was Marlon Brando, Monty Clift, Manolete, Rodger Ward, St. Exupery’s Little Prince… and he was all of them, and none of them. He was the Dreamer. The Clown. The Racer. The Rebel.

He was Jimmy Dean.

(“J.D.” James Byron Dean. Jim Stark-Jett Rink-Cal Trask. The Rebel Without a Cause, banished somewhere in the East of Eden, who became a Giant in his death… perhaps because he’d always chased death—or, more accurately, chased the Immortality he was sure death would bring.)

When James Dean died at intersection of highways 41 and 466, sometime after 5:30 p.m. on September 30, 1955—he was a 24-year-old movie star, with one big hit under his belt and two more in the can. Everything, it seemed, lay before him. He was on the way to a race in Salinas (ironically, the site of his first movie, East of Eden). He was driving a white Porsche—his nickname for it was “the Little Bastard”—and he was driving it recklessly, dangerously, perhaps as much as 40 miles above the speed limit. At the crotch of 41 and 466, he collided with a black Plymouth limousine, driven by a young man with the madly prosaic name of Donald Turnupseed; the Porsche crumpled and the steering wheel gored Dean’s chest like a crazed bull who’d just slipped through the matador’s veronicas. His passenger, Rolf Weutherich, was thrown clear. Turnupseed also survived. But James Dean, 24, was dead on arrival.

And it seemed his career was dead, too. But careers, images, are funny things. Dean—in the space of barely a year and a half—had, beyond all odds or expectations, done something rich and permanent. His audience saw it first. They were the teenagers of the ’50s— the first rock ‘n’ roll generation, and the ancestors, in many ways, of the ’60s and ’70s generations: Presley, Dylan, the hippies, the potheads, and the punks, and all the rest. They saw in Dean an image of themselves: purified, idealized, and spread triumphantly across a Technicolor Cinemascope screen. But there was something more, too. Who could have predicted that their loyalty to this tyro actor in blue jeans would so far outstrip and survive his death? Would survive their youth, too—and the times that engendered them—and would, in turn, grip the next wave of youth, and the wave after that, nettle them, get under their skin, give them a touchstone, an idol, and, in the end, make James Dean something he always sought—in his confused, inchoate, murderously determined way—to be: a symbol. Immortal. The Man Who Could Cheat Death.

As he might have said himself, reflecting on all of this (and copping another gesture from his own idol, Marlon Brando): ”Wow!”

Yeah, he survived as long as he did, and embodied as much, for the same reason he died fast and young: because he had enormous, almost foolhardy courage. Poring over the spectacle of his life is like watching Icarus, or a flamenco dancer doing his stuff barefoot on live coals while swallowing a sword. Dean took risks continually—in his life as well as his acting. He set himself up for catastrophe… and slipped the trap time after time. He was lucky; something in his appearance—gentle and savage—something in his confusions and torment, his hunger and his drives inspired such love and fascination in the people around him, that they forgave him everything, helped him continuously… and, however he may have paid them back or stiffed them in life, had all their passion and faith vindicated in the end.

He became the symbol of his age—because he was alive to all its crazy contradictions. In his three big films—East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant—he created a character (himself—and that part of himself he discovered and implanted in his roles) that struck at the soul of his country, burned away much of the bullshit and left the guts, naked and passionate and undisguised. America is obsessed with youth. Dean was Youth personified, Youth made immortal. America is acquisitive, driven to compete; yet also ashamed, conscience-stricken. So was Dean. America is “open, unabashed”… but it also has guilty secrets. So did Dean. America is a nation of voluptuaries and moralists, pilgrims and hedonists. Dean had both the top and flip side. America is obsessed with speed, progress, forward motion; fixated on sexuality-minus-love and love-minus-sex; servile and contemptuous, a bully and an introvert. America is a city kid—restless, roaming the streets, hunting kicks—yet it always stops in the bars and reminisces over its lost past… back there in the country, on the farm, out beyond the wheat and the streets and the valleys and the back roads. That’s Jimmy Dean, too. He embraced it all, caught everything.

At the roots of that character are things every generation that followed could grab fast and completely—terror, alienation and the wild pursuit of beauty. In both East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, Dean plays the “bad boy” riding out there on the meanest streets, who secretly yearns to be “good,” to be “accepted,” to “belong”… cut off from his family, not because he hates them, but because he loves them more fully than they can grasp. In East of Eden, his character is “Cain,” but a “Cain” sweeter and worthier and more good than his dull, tight-ass brother, Abel. In Rebel, his entire struggle is a quest to be worthy of his father—or, rather, not what his father is (a timid, pallid, henpecked wimp) but what he should be. In these movies, Elia Kazan and Nicholas Ray picked Dean not for what he could fake, but for what he was. Kazan knew instantly that Dean was Cal Trask… and Ray shaped his entire movie around Dean’s character, eccentricities and naked battering emotions.

Kazan and Ray tapped Jimmy’s veins and they both got masterpieces—and Ray got something of a cultural shock wave in the bargain. Rebel Without a Cause. An American classic, an explosion in hot reds and velvety blacks. Passion on a dragstrip; Apocalypse with rhythm and blues. And with the role Dean probably never would have surpassed (as Brando never really surpassed Stanley Kowalski or Terry Malloy; had to become a different Brando, in fact, to even attempt it). Jim Stark. (Even the name is stripped, essential.) The “bad kid from the right side of town.” The incipient alcoholic. The gentle introvert who loves fast cars, and whose night moves and advances toward sex are delicate and elliptical. The guy who can’t stand to be called “chicken,” and who aims a jack at your head when he hears the word. The kid in a gaudy red jacket, T-shirt and jeans, who, in instances of stress, presses a milk bottle to his face and forehead… who has a neurotic, battle-ax mother, a jellyfish dad and a scheming grandma whipping up the family hurricanes. The kid who “never figured I’d live to see 18,” and who just wants one day where he doesn’t have to be confused or hurt, one day where he feels he belongs. Who grins delightedly as he revs up for the chicken run on the cliff’s edge; and who stares up, enraptured, as the universe explodes above his head in the Griffith planetarium, and who screams in the police station with furious intensity, his face a wrenched boiling mask of agony: “You’re tearing me apart!”

Nick Ray, Kazan and Giant’s George Stevens, they were a trio of American romantics; and in James Dean, from Fairmount, they found the real, raw stuff—something primal and explosive. One of the most concentrated, self-absorbed actors in all movies—someone who could, while blowing himself out emotionally, simultaneously suck all the tension, all the energy in a screen back in toward himself, fixate everyone. Perhaps part of this power came because he was nearsighted; because, in all his films, he couldn’t see much of what was happening—and, therefore, fell back on himself; created a universe out of his body, his face and his words; and forced the other actors to adjust to his rhythm—enter his world. James Dean is the Saint of Narcissism, adolescent confusion, anguish, and the struggle to belong. The world of his three major movies is his world—and when, as in Giant, the emphasis shifts away from him, it almost seems as if the world has been torn from its axis.

So, [now] Dean still means as much as—perhaps more than—he did just after his crack-up, in that first wave of that crazed flood of national necrophilia. People still obsess on him. He is the American actor of his period: more than Brando, more than Monroe, more than Duke Wayne—not necessarily because he was better (he never really matched Brando, his unapproachable idol to the end), but because he made this awful, eerie conjunction between his life and his acting; because he was too driven (too high, too crazy, maybe) to know when to stop; because his integrity was absolute and suicidal; because he was too much, too completely “the actor.” He took the image and gestures of a confused, beleaguered, sad, joyous kid—and filtered them through the whole dark social canvas of America—and made them over into the gestures of a God.

If James Dean had lived, he would have made more movies with Nick Ray; and he would have played the roles in The Battler and Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Left-Handed Gun that went, after his death, to Paul Newman. He would probably have tried his hand at writing, direction—and, perhaps, like Brando, he would have been squelched. Maybe he would have destroyed himself in different ways—slower, easier. Or maybe his personality would have radically shifted… away from tension and restlessness and anger. But, because he died on the way to Salinas, at that moment in time, he stays frozen there forever at the crossroads. His image is eternal. You can’t imagine any other Jimmy Dean than the one we see in the movies, the one that still existed in that split second before the crash, as he screamed to Rolf Weutherich: “That guy’s got to stop!”

That’s when it finally happened. He was torn apart. And he pressed the accelerator once too often, and didn’t swerve at the last instant at highways 41 and 466, and he died at the hands of fate and a guy named Turnupseed. And […] years later, his bones rest in the Indiana dirt. But his soul keeps blazing away up on a thousand silver screens. He goes through all the motions of eternity again and again… roars off toward the cliff in the “blind run,” presses a tentative kiss on Natalie Wood in the gathering darkness, huddles cold and lonely on the freight train carrying him through golden waving cropland—and yearns for that day, that one clear day, that day without confusion or hurt or loneliness, that last day of serenity and quiet that all of us want to find, too. Rest in peace, James Dean… No; the Hell with that. Bullshit. Wherever you are, hit the gas again, and keep on trying.

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