Because I watch more movies than I read books, I felt it would only be right to honor one of my favorite actors today, on this, the 80th anniversary of his birth.
Note: You’ll probably think I’m stone crazy after finishing this. But you should expect no less after reading the name of this blog, right?
I fell in love with the image of James Dean first. I remember buying a calendar of James Dean pictures to splice all over my walls at college based on the fact he just oozed cool, and I loved the timeless photography of Roy Schatt and Dennis Stock. With his chiseled good looks and easy manner of carrying himself, Jimmy could’ve been a model; but he was a born creative person, from making art to his method acting, and he was an avid reader. It’s a well-known fact that James Dean was head over heels for the writing of Ernest Hemingway, and especially the book, Death in the Afternoon; Jimmy became fascinated with matadors and bullfighting. He was a deep-thinker and a thrill-seeker. His middle name came from his mother’s love for the English poet Lord Byron, and the poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgramage,” in which Byron wrote: “I woke one morning and found myself famous.” He was destined for glory, and his journey was cut short just at the apex of his success. This is the story of how I came to know Jimmy 47 years after his death.
My first year of college, I rediscovered my love for movies, because that’s what artistic kids do with Higher Education. I started dabbling into classic films I’d never seen before. The first time I picked up Rebel Without a Cause, it was as a part of a 5-movie rental deal at my local video store; I’m fairly certain it was around Christmastime, but I can’t be 100% positive on that. I don’t remember any of the other movies I watched from that batch except for Rebel. I do remember watching it in my parents’ basement, alone, and after the film ended, feeling cheated I had gone so long without ever having seen it before. Though I was out of high school, I was still able to connect with the theme of the film, the damnable misunderstanding of teens in our culture, and the pressures and unfair expectations of young people in society. But as it should be, none of the characters resonated with me like Jim Stark. The charisma of James Dean was still magnetic nearly 50 years after his death, and something spoke to me in his performance to do some research on this guy.
First off, I’m going to I admit right now that I have a bit of a morbid fascination for celebrities who die young, and I’ve had it since I was a kid. Don’t ask me why, because I have no idea where it stems from. It’s like I to try to find some connection with them; maybe it’s the post-humous biographies that deliberately try to connect them to us that feeds my interest, or the ironic signs you can read back into their lives that foreshadow their unlucky fates. Maybe I was searching for my own. For the longest time, I was convinced I was going to die young, because I simply couldn’t imagine my life beyond high school, and in college, I felt like I was existing on borrowed time. It makes sense I became fascinated with death and celebrities who died too young. Anyway, this exploded ten-fold when I began to research James Dean.
James Dean had my initials, J.D. My first name was the feminine version of James: Jamie. (Full disclosure, now: Ara Trask is a pen name. So now you see the wizard behind the curtain.) His birthday is four days off of mine. Like me, he was a great art student in high school. Like me, he loved animals, and connected with them almost better than other people. Like me, he was sort a mumble-mouth and enjoyed the paradox of being alone, but hated loneliness. Like mine, his eyesight wasn’t the best. He was born and raised in a small town in Indiana; I was born and raised in the state next door, in a small town in Illinois. We were both only children. We both loved horses and liked to drive fast. We both yearned to leave our small towns behind and make it big in the city, aspiring for fame. Growing up, people pressured us into believing one day, we would become famous. You can see where this all went.
To make my research legitimate, I used this new interest to write a long-winded paper for my independent study. I slipped a piece of paper beneath my teacher’s door with the proclamation, “I think God is trying to tell me to write my paper on James Dean.” Because she had a sense of humor, my teacher granted my bizzare idea and gave me an excuse to pour over different books about Jimmy and learn about his life and death. The similarities felt more than coincidental. I almost convinced myself I was the living reincarnation, except I didn’t believe in reincarnation. It did make me wonder, though: if reincarnation did exist, would you subconsiously try to avoid mistakes you made in your previous lifetime? I was relatively clean-cut in my habits compared to Jimmy: I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t take a lot of social or relationship risks. Yeah, that’s code for “didn’t date.” But Jimmy didn’t exactly have a lot of girlfriends in school, either; he was too hung up on his older woman crush, his art teacher. Yeah, I don’t know anything about unobtainable older-man crushes… ahem.
After I wrote my research paper on James Dean, I made a roadtrip to Fairmount, Indiana with a friend on a memorable spring break. We made the stop in Indiana on our way to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, where the U2 exhibit was going on full-force. I brought my book, James Dean Photographs, (Which I highly recommend for some fantastic photography and atmospheric still frames from all of his films.) to show me visual evidence of where Jimmy had walked, places I needed to see with my own two eyes. Fairmount was a tiny town with not much going for it outside of the legacy of its favorite son. There was a museum dedicated to Jimmy, but I felt it was too gimmicky and was turned off by the cardboard cut-out on the front porch of the house that marked the museum entrance. We drove past the farmhouse in which he grew up, walked around the high school he attended (which was derelect, and from which I collected a brick that now holds a special spot on my bookshelf), various places in the tiny downtown, and finally, the graveyard.
The graveyard in which James Dean is buried is a flat, almost treeless expanse that you would normally come across in a small MidWestern town; there is no huge monument here to give pause to anyone passing through town that one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars lays at rest here. In a way, I’m glad for it, because it feels less like a tourist destination when you come upon the humble grave. There is only a headstone, adorned with fake flowers, and the kiss marks of hundreds of puckered lips. I admit, I didn’t see the lip marks until I looked back at my pictures; it was the first time I’d seen someone leave pennies on a grave before, and I thought they made it look trashy and I was distracted by this. (So if I do die and become famous (whichever comes first), please don’t leave pennies on my grave. Leave cookies. Or a horseshoe. Or a note. I promise I’ll read your letters.)
I felt odd visiting Jimmy’s grave, because it was the last tangible evidence of his existence; after getting to know the person he had been, it was almost surreal that the real man lay beneath that earth in some mangled, fleshless form. Actually, I didn’t picture him as a corpse. I pictured him reposing in his cowboy boots and jeans he’d worn while filming Giant, for some reason. Also, I pictured his funeral and the procession of his coffin leaving the small church on the way to the cemetery. His body would be in the ground a month before the nation fell in love with him in Rebel Without a Cause; only East of Eden had been released while Jimmy was alive, and though he received a post-humous Oscar nomination for this performance, it was the role of Jim Stark in Rebel that made him an icon. Jimmy never really got to enjoy any of his success; he never knew the millions of people he would touch, never knew his role as the troubled teen in the red jacket would make him a legend.
Maybe for the reason that the stories of Jimmy’s life were more tactile than the idea of him laying beneath the ground, I didn’t feel closure after that visit. In a way, I didn’t feel like he was really there. To me, he was still in California, where he had found success and eventually met the Reaper in the Salinas Valley. And so, I took his route in California and drove from L.A. to the intersection outside of Cholame where his Porsche 550 Spyder had collided head-on with with a car turning into his lane.
It was three years between my trip to Jimmy’s grave and my pilgrimage to the spot where he took his last breath. When I came to that fateful intersection and pulled onto the shoulder of the road to take in the scene, I was 23, exactly a year younger than the age he had died. It was here I felt a greater understanding of him; the home Jimmy had once known in Fairmount seemed long gone, but the hills hadn’t changed all that much here outside of Cholame. It was still a rolling countryside interrupted only by a cross of two strips of pavement; there was still even a barbed wire fence stretching along the side of the highway. In a way, I felt like I’d finally found him.
James Dean accomplished so much in his life in so little time. In 1955, he starred in three movies, and all the films he would ever make. In a blink so brief he would never get to really see it, he became a star. Standing there on the cusp of that age, I felt like so much was possible in so little time. I hadn’t accomplished hardly any of what I’d hoped to in my lifetime, but looking out at that vast expanse of soft, green hills gave me the drive to see what I could do with that time. If you pardon the cliche, the road was opened to me at that moment. “Live fast, die young,” someone said in summing up Jimmy’s life. For the longest time, I’ve always felt that was exactly what I had to do; now that it’s been five years since I first visited that intersection, I have accomplished quite a bit. Maybe not in every aspect of my life, but more than I’d ever dreamed. Life is precious, and I’d like to think that when I’m doing what I love, I don’t take it for granted.
James Dean once said, “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” And I want to thank him for helping me to always remember that.
Happy birthday, Jimmy.