He is James Byron Dean, also known as James Dean. He was an American actor. He is a cultural icon of teenage disillusionment, as expressed in the title of his most celebrated film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), in which he starred as troubled teenager Jim Stark. The other two roles that defined his stardom were loner Cal Trask in East of Eden (1955) and surly ranch hand Jett Rink in Giant (1956). Dean‘s enduring fame and popularity rest on his performances in only these three films, in two of which he is in the leading role.
Dean‘s premature death in a car crash cemented his legendary status. He became the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and remains the only actor to have had two posthumous acting nominations. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked him the 18th best male movie star on their AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars list.
Screenwriter William Bast was one of Dean‘s closest friends, a fact acknowledged by Dean‘s family. According to Dean‘s first biographer (1956), Bast was his roommate at UCLA and later in New York, and knew Dean throughout the last five years of his life. Fifty years after Dean‘s death, he stated that their friendship had included some sexual intimacy.
While at UCLA, Dean dated Beverly Wills, an actress with CBS, and Jeanette Lewis, a classmate. Bast and Dean often double-dated with them. Wills began dating Dean alone, later telling Bast, “Bill, there’s something we have to tell you. It’s Jimmy and me. I mean, we’re in love.” Dean also kept in contact with his girlfriend in New York, Barbara Glenn, whom he dated for two years. Their love letters sold at auction in 2011 for $36,000.
Early in Dean‘s career, after Dean signed his contract with Warner Brothers, the studio’s public relations department began generating stories about Dean‘s liaisons with a variety of young actresses who were mostly drawn from the clientele of Dean‘s Hollywood agent, Dick Clayton. Studio press releases also grouped “Dean together with two other actors, Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, identifying each of the men as an ‘eligible bachelor’ who has not yet found the time to commit to a single woman: ‘They say their film rehearsals are in conflict with their marriage rehearsals.”
Dean‘s best-remembered relationship was with young Italian actress Pier Angeli, whom he met while Angeli was shooting The Silver Chalice on an adjoining Warner lot, and with whom he exchanged items of jewelry as love tokens. Angeli, during an interview fourteen years after their relationship ended, described their times together:
“We used to go together to the California coast and stay there secretly in a cottage on a beach far away from prying eyes. We’d spend much of our time on the beach, sitting there or fooling around, just like college kids. We would talk about ourselves and our problems, about the movies and acting, about life and life after death. We had a complete understanding of each other. We were like Romeo and Juliet, together and inseparable. Sometimes on the beach we loved each other so much we just wanted to walk together into the sea holding hands because we knew then that we would always be together.“
In his autobiography East of Eden, director Elia Kazan dismissed the notion that Dean could possibly have had any success with women, although he remembered hearing Dean and Angeli loudly making love in Dean‘s dressing room. In 1997, the television movie Race with Destiny was produced, a true-story account of the love affair between Dean and Pier Angeli. It was shot on location “where he lived and loved” until his death.
Despite their strong love for each other, a number of forces led them apart. Angeli‘s mother disapproved of Dean‘s casual dress and what were, for her at least, radical behavior traits: his T-shirt attire, late dates, fast cars, and the fact that he was not a Catholic. Her mother said that such behavior was not acceptable in Italy. In addition, MGM, where he worked, tried to talk him out of marrying and he himself told Angeli that he didn’t want to get married.
After finishing his role for East of Eden, he took a brief trip to New York in October 1954. While he was away, Angeli unexpectedly announced her engagement to Italian-American singer Vic Damone. The press was shocked and Dean expressed his irritation. Angeli married Damone the following month. Gossip columnists reported that Dean watched the wedding from across the road on his motorcycle, even gunning the engine during the ceremony, although Dean later denied doing anything so “dumb.”
Some, like Bast and Paul Alexander, believe the relationship was a mere publicity stunt. Pier Angeli talked only once about the relationship in her later life in an interview, giving vivid descriptions of romantic meetings at the beach. Dean biographer John Howlett said these read like wishful fantasies, as Bast claims them to be.
Actress Liz Sheridan asserts that she and Dean had a short affair in New York. Again Bast is skeptical as to whether this was a true love affair and says Dean and Sheridan did not spend much time together. Dean also dated Swiss actress Ursula Andress. “She was seen riding around Hollywood on the back of James’s motorcycle,” writes biographer Darwin Porter. She was also seen with Dean in his sports cars, and was with him on the day he bought the car that he died in. At the time, Andress was also dating Marlon Brando. Andress remembered her courtship with Dean: “He came by my house late. He came in room like wild animal, and smell of everything I don’t like,” she said. “We go hear jazz music and he leave table. Say he go play drums. He no come back. I don’t like to be alone. I go home. He come by my home later and say he sorry.” She added that Brando was “particularly interested in finding out from Ursula who the better lover was: James Dean or himself. It drove him crazy.”
Rumors that Dean avoided the draft by registering as a homosexual appear to be of doubtful authenticity. Not only was he extremely near-sighted and required glasses, he was also a Quaker, either of which was sufficient cause for him to be excused from service.
Signature of James Dean
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