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The Real James
Edited by Peter
Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best
Foreword by George Stevens Jr.
(Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016)
368 pages, illustrated. Paperback, $19.99.
ISBN: : 978-1-61373-472-8
Review by Dr.
the time of his death, James Dean, only twenty-four years of age,
had starred in three films, all of which became screen classics: Elia
Kazan's East of Eden, Nick Ray's Rebel Without a Cause,
and George Stevens' Giant. The latter two pictures were released
after the actor's fatal car accident near Cholame, California, on
September 30, 1955. Of course, Dean went on to become, in death, a
genuine Hollywood icon, a lasting symbol of disaffected youth.
Fans of the Indiana born star will applaud the publication of this
superb anthology, a welcome addition to Dean studies. Winkler, author
of the well-received Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood
Rebel (Barricade Books, 2011), has assembled an impressive anthology
of recollections from those who knew the charismatic young actor,
including relatives, mentors and teachers, friends and lovers, directors,
and costars. Some adored Dean; others despised him.
Among those whose reminiscences Winkler includes are Emma Woolen Dean,
James' grandmother; his father, Winton Dean; Adeline Nall, his Fairmount,
Indiana, high school drama teacher; girlfriends Beverly Wills, Dizzy
Sheridan, and Pier Angeli; male lovers William Bast, Rogers Brackett,
and John Gilmore; gossip columnists Sidney Skolsky and Hedda Hopper;
confidants Eartha Kitt, Toni Lee Scott, and Maila Nurmi; colleagues
Raymond Massey, Natalie Wood, Jim Backus, Dennis Hopper, Mercedes
McCambridge, and Rock Hudson; dialogue coach Bob Hinkle, who taught
Dean how to "talk Texan"; photographer Sanford Roth; directors Kazan,
Ray, and Stevens; and Porsche mechanic Rolf Wutherich, who accompanied
Dean on that doomed trip to Salinas but survived the crash. Actress
Shelley Winters viewed Dean as "a forerunner of the Beat Generation."
In her assessment, he "was obviously very beautiful and a gifted actor…In
some weird way he reminded me of Peter Pan, but without the joy, as
if he had sprung from never-never land and would disappear back into
Winkler acquired his selections from a wide variety of sources, including
weathered movie magazines (such as Modern Screen and Photoplay),
books no longer in print, studies about other film stars, memoirs,
and Dean biographies. He also provides insightful introductions to
each of the book's forty-two chapters.
in 1956, Giant, a cattle and oil epic filmed around "sun-blasted"
Marfa, Texas, ranks as
one of the greatest pictures ever made about the Lone Star State.
With remarkable skill, Dean portrayed Jett Rink, the working class
ranch hand who struck black gold, becoming a powerful oil baron. Evaluating
Dean's performance, Time magazine observed: "He has caught
the Texas accent to nasal perfection…[Dean] clearly shows for the
first and fatefully the last time what his admirers always said he
had: a streak of genius." (Edna Ferber, who authored the novel, based
Jett on successful Texas wildcatter "Diamond Glenn" McCarthy, owner
of two banks, newspapers, a radio station, and the famous Shamrock
Hotel in Houston.) In addition to exploring class issues, director
Stevens sharply addressed race, gender, and generational conflict
in midcentury West Texas.
Tragically, Giant was Dean's final film; what a promising career,
cut brutally short. What might have been? Prior to his demise, Dean
was pondering two motion pictures: Somebody Up There Likes Me,
about boxer Rocky Graziano, and the Billy the Kid western, The
Left Handed Gun. Both roles went to Paul Newman, whose career
flourished. One can only surmise: had Dean lived, would he have gone
on to play such memorable Newman roles as Fast Eddie Felson, Hud,
Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy?
Dean craved speed, whether from motorcycle or car, and was fond of
the quote, "live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse." Undoubtedly,
he lived fast and died young, but his remains were a mess, bloodied
and broken. His death certificate reported the damage: "broken neck,
multiple fractures of upper and lower jaw, multiple fractures of left
and right arm, internal injuries." Though he perished at an early
age, the memory of Dean, the eternal rebel, endures.
Winkler's fine book adds to the legend. Cinephiles and Texas studies
enthusiasts will appreciate his commendable compendium.
Note of interest: University of Texas professor Dr. Don Graham
is currently working on a volume about the history and significance
of Giant, which should be available in 2017. In a previously
published article, Dr. Graham averred, "For Texas historians and moviemakers
alike, real Texas was cowboys, vast ranches, and pastoral beatitudes.
Giant repackaged and updated the myth, bringing Red River into
the twentieth century, where the old beloved ranching tradition was
pitted against a newer, rawer Texas myth: oil."