Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Real James Dean

The Real James Dean
The Real James Dean
Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best
edited by Peter L. Winkler
Chicago Review Press
9781613734728 - 368 pages
August 2016

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When we look at the legacy of classic film actors and actresses there is a natural hierarchy. There are those obscure names known by a select group of people, characters actors that are beloved by a small following, legends who became part of the fabric of the 20th Century but contemporary audiences might struggle to identify and then there are the immortals whose images have transcended their lives and careers to become timeless icons. Among that last group there are only a handful of names including Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

“He made only three motion pictures, yet sixty years after his death he remains one of the world’s iconic movie stars.” – George Stevens Jr. (foreword)

Dean stands out among that bunch because of the impact he made having only lived 24 years and starred in a scant three films. However, his legacy benefited from his brief life. Those who attached themselves to his image continued the narrative after his death. He didn’t live long enough to have box office failures, career ending scandals or to grow old and fade away. Dean died with a beautiful corpse and at the height of his skyrocketing career. In a morbid way he let us write the rest of the story by dying in that tragic car accident on September 30th, 1955.

James Dean death came at the height of his East of Eden (1955) fame, immediately after filming Giant (1956) and weeks before the Rebel Without a Cause (1955) premiere. The impact of his death on the general public during that time was massive. He developed a cult following who was ravenous for anything they could get their hands on. They wanted as much James Dean as they could get and the people who inhabited Dean’s world became known for being part of different milestones in his short life. In The Real James Dean, a collection of essays, interviews and other writings edited by Peter L. Winkler, we get to hear their stories. We see James Dean through their eyes.

Earth Kitt and James Dean
 "James Dean has become a perennial hero to nonconformists.” – James Bellah, college friend

This anthology has a vast array of voices. It’s organized in a chronological way so it reads as though it’s a biography of sorts. Starting off with James Dean’s grandmother, high school drama coach, fellow college students, teachers the collection then moves on to his love interests, both male and female, his fellow actors on Broadway, TV and Hollywood, journalists, gossip columnists, directors, and many more. It’s a comprehensive view of James Dean’s life coming from all angles. There are full essays, excerpts from memoirs, clips from interviews and newly fashioned essays meant to present snippets and quotes. There are also outtakes which are longer quotes that complement preceding essays. This book is incredibly well-organized and there was a natural flow to the narrative. It reads like one big biography with each chapter written by a different writer. If you struggle with standard biographies, this is a good alternative. You could read the book cover-to-cover or dip in an out by reading individual pieces. I recommend reading the book straight through as you’ll see themes develop over time.

"Rebellious, secretive, and calculating, he opted for acceptance via the route of stardom... Sensitive and violent by turns, both the boy and the girl next door, he projected the ambivalent sexuality and chastity of the classic deal -- if in spirit he was perhaps more Icarus than Apollo." - Frank Corsarso

Some of the notable voices in this collection include writings by the following:

William Bast
Rogers Brackett
Hume Cronyn
Shelley Winters
Eartha Kitt
Elia Kazan
Raymond Massey
Hedda Hopper
Nicholas Ray
Natalie Wood
Jim Backus
George Stevens
Dore Schary
Mercedes McCambridge
Alec Guiness
and more

There are also quotes from Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Pier Angeli and Dennis Hopper. The collection even includes a piece by James Dean that he wrote in high school as well as a piece by Rolf Wütherich who was in the car with James Dean on that tragic day.

James Dean and Rolf Wütherich on the day of the accident

The stories paint a portrait of James Dean as a moody individual who was obsessed with matadors, sensitive about his talents but also thought highly of them and was determined against all odds to make it big as an actor. He was difficult to understand but people were drawn to him like moths to a flame. Fame came to those associated with him. They became known as the people who knew James Dean.

Each of James Dean’s three major roles represent some aspect of his life and it’s true that he really did play himself on screen. There a lot of behind-the-scenes stories, some repeat themselves and some stand alone. Readers get to know quite a bit about James Dean’s sexual relationships with both men and women with a spotlight on his failed and overly romanticized relationship with actress Pier Angeli. Most of what happened to James Dean happened in the last 6 years of his life and as I read the text I could only marvel at what he was able to accomplish in such a short time.

James Dean and Pier Angeli

The Real James Dean by Peter L. Winkler is a fascinating read with each essay offering a unique reflection from one of Dean’s contemporaries. It’s much more approachable than a full in-depth biography. Winkler introduces each piece with background and includes footnotes to clarify any inconsistencies in the text. Memory is a fallible thing and there were factual errors that needed to be clarified.

Thank you to Chicago Review Press for sending me this book for review. They were also generous enough to let me host a giveaway for one copy of the book (US Only)! Just leave me a comment below to enter. Contest ends 10/2 and winner will be announced 10/3!

Update: Contest is over. Congrats to Katy the winner!

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