September 30, 1955-Two motor vehicles collided at the intersection of Routes 41 and 46 near Cholame, California. The first vehicle, a Ford sedan suffered light damage. Vehicle number two, a Porsche 550 Spyder, was found twisted like a piece of aluminum foil. Inside the car is film star James Byron Dean (1931-1955). His passenger, Rudolf Karl Wütherich (1927-1981) was thrown from the vehicle but survived. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital. He was twenty-four years old. Nearly sixty-three years have passed since his death but incredibly, he is still the poster boy for youths determined to be the “rebel without a cause”. He is credited with three films during his career and multiple television appearances. By Hollywood standards, his resume is short but at only twenty-four, he had the prospect of a long and successful career first in front of him and then taken away the instant his car collided with by Donald Turnupseed’s Ford. His fans were devastated and Hollywood was forced to grieve for a young star taken before his time. In death, he joins the long list of celebrities who died before their thirtieth birthday. But what is it about James Dean that captivates millions of people, young and old six decades after his death?
David Dalton looked into his life and came away with this biography of the man he calls the “Mutant King”. It is fair to say that before and after him, there was and has never been another James Dean. He was one of those rare stars who stood out not simply on acting ability but on persona that was about the cut, unique and irresistibly attractive. But like all great stars, Dean’s life was as interesting on-screen as it was off-screen and what we have seen in his films and television appearances was not that far from the truth. Born in 1931 in Marion, Indiana to Winton and Mildred Dean, he entered the world as the country was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression. His mother Mildred would only be in her child’s life for nine years, dying of cancer in 1940 at the age of twenty-nine. From this point on, Dean’s life would never be the same and throughout his short but incredible life, he would remember his mother’s untimely death and how it caused his longing for that relationship in all aspects of his life.
Dean’s story is told best not by just factual research but by those who know and worked with him. Dalton has wisely taken this course and the statements of scores of film stars and Hollywood personalities who knew Dean are contained within the pages of this fitting biography. Their stories give the reader of the complete picture of James Dean’s life. Far from the “rebel without a cause”, the real James Dean was a multi-dimensional character for whom one label would not nearly be enough. What I found interesting in the interviews is that the speakers were very candid in their recollections even when the narrative was not favorable towards Dean. Perhaps the most scorching of all of them are the words of the late Marlon Brando (1924-2004). As harsh as some words are, there are words favorable to Dean and what we can gather is that none of them had ever met anyone like him nor did they ever forget him. Jimmy as he was known to those who knew him, always seemed to keep them guessing, rarely revealing his true self as he fought with his inner-struggle and grief over his mother’s early demise and a relationship with his father, temperamental at best. However, if readers are looking for a dysfunctional childhood, it will not be found here. In fact, Dean was supported by many who loved him and no traces of insanity can be found in the story at hand. He was just another child out of Marion and Fairmount, Indiana. But being ordinary did not last for long and in just a few short years, Dean was on his way to becoming a box office legend before his passion for cars and racing led him down the path that ended with his life being cut short on a lonely California highway.
The world will never forget Dean and his image of the rebellious youth is cemented in place for generations to come. We can only guess as to what he would have thought of all of this. From all accounts, he was somewhat shy and secluded in private, a far cry from the larger than life star he appeared to be in front of the camera. For some, he always be the rebel without a cause and for others, another senseless victim of unforgiving roads and fate. His defiant personality and unwillingness to conform to society’s standards helped set him apart from his peers. Hollywood has yet to see the next James Dean and I dot believe that we will. He was a once in a lifetime star who remains in our consciousness as the image of what Hollywood stars used to be. But there is always another side that we rarely see that reveals the humanity or dark side behind the celebrity. Here we get a mix of both in the story of James Byron Dean.