Go to content Go to menu

International Gay & Lesbian Review

Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean

by Donald Spoto
review

Erik A. Sanjuro: Erik A. Sanjuro is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Southern California. His specialty areas are in American Government and Political Communication.

It is ironic that the people who Americans find the most compelling are often also the most misunderstood. A perfect example of this is found in the life and legend of James Dean. Time has in no way established a clear portrait of the famed actor, but instead has produced dozens of contradictory claims about him.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the multitude of stories floating around about Dean since his death in 1955 actually make it more difficult to determine what Dean really was like as a person. This is why REBEL: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF JAMES DEAN is such a remarkable achievement. Author Donald Spoto does an incredible job of separating the myth from the reality about the boy from Fairmont, Indiana. Spoto does this in large part by offering every past claim about Dean, no matter how unlikely, and demonstrating through careful research how likely or unlikely each is to be true.

Spoto's goal is much different from that of prior Dean biographers, who have mostly sought to either exaggerate or disregard the more controversial aspects of the icon's life, depending upon their personal agenda. The largest controversy among James Dean scholars is of course over the young man's sexual orientation. Recent biographies on Dean by Joe Hyams and Paul Alexander have suggested that he was gay. Spoto directs a great deal of the book toward their gossipy assertions about Dean's sex life. The author is extremely fair in his judgment, confirming only those claims which he was able to verify with a reliable source. As a result, his portrait of James Dean is well-rounded, accurate and very believable.

Dean did have several male lovers. While there have long been stories suggesting that Dean was, among other things, a male hooker, Spoto finds no evidence of this. The author also shoots down with shrewd logic one of the most famous untruths about Dean, that he avoided the military draft as a teen by stating that he was a homosexual. As Spoto rightly explains, any young man making such a claim in 1950s middle America would have been the subject of tremendous teasing and harassment.

Most of Dean's romantic involvements with men were with older, fatherly figures. Jimmy and his own father rarely communicated. This animosity stemmed from when the young Dean was orphaned after his mother died and his father moved to California, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents. As a result of this tragedy, which was the defining moment of the actor's life, Spoto argues that Dean felt a strong need for an older male role model. This goal was often accomplished within the context of a sexual relationship.

Tales of Dean's romantic flings are greatly exaggerated, however, especially with women. Most of the Hollywood starlets with whom he has been frequently linked were just friends. Dean did maintain several long-term heterosexual relations during his early days working as an actor in New York. All in all, Dean's pattern throughout his life seemed to be one of seeking understanding from women and guidance from men.

More important than the sex of the people Dean held relationships with was the way they turned out. Dean essentially wanted attention, Spoto argues, and prevented himself from ever really caring about anyone. For this reason it is silly to speak about whether Dean preferred dating men or women. Lovers for him all served the same purpose, to temporarily fill the never-ending well that was his heart.

Dean “latched on to people he liked, took what he needed and was quick to drop them before they might drop him,” Spoto writes. (151) The adult Dean was never able to recover from the dual shocks of the death of his beloved mother and betrayal by his father.

One of the most intriguing conclusions of REBEL is that Dean was, at best, a very tough person to get along with and, at worst, an extremely unlikable personality. Or as one Dean acquaintance recalled:

“You had the sense, if you watched him carefully, that he was absolutely terrified of rejection, that underneath his coldness there was some terrible wound that would never heal. . .He wanted to be understood and loved for himself, but he was afraid to disclose himself. It was an impossible dilemma.” (158)

Dean's fear of intimacy caused him to push away from anyone, including lovers, who ever tried to get too close to him. This strange disposition also made him very difficult to work with.

“Jimmy could never accept criticism, which he invariably took as personal rejection,” one associate noted. (165) A Dennis the Menace-type personality, Dean was constantly performing practical jokes and otherwise disrupting the lives of those around him in order to win attention. His antics included urinating on stage sets, driving around movie lots at high speed in his cars, and Dean's long-time favorite, coughing up his dentures in order to give the impression that his front teeth had fallen out.

In addition to relating stories about Dean's unique habits, Spoto provides numerous perceptive insights into the true nature of the icon's character. He does not see this humanization of Dean as taking away from the actor's legend.

“To set forth this actor's complex character is not to diminish him; rather, it helps to explain his artless ability to project both disaffection and the desire for love, both of a diffuse pain and an inarticulate longing for love and acceptance.” (161)

The reason why so much uncertainty exists about who was the real James Dean is that in the public eye, Dean has always been a sort of enigma.

“Fierce and lovable, wild and gentle, obdurate and pliant, gauche and graceful, straight and gay, artless and calculating he was and remains all things to everyone.” (Spoto 275)

Straight men want to be his friend. Women see him as a scared child that needs a mother's love and protection. Teenagers view him as the embodiment of their intensely-felt emotions and insecurities. Gays and lesbians feel a special affinity toward Jimmy because they count him as one of their own.

One of the reasons why it is so hard to separate the real person James Dean from his movie image is that, unlike Marilyn Monroe, Dean was who he played.

“This created an odd irony, for the twenty-four-year-old boy who had no identity, no clear idea about himself, was playing confused characters with no identity and, in the process, trying to find himself.” (235)

It may very well be that the brevity of Dean's life is what has allowed him to become a symbol for so many different and at times contrasting things. Had Dean lived to enjoy the stardom that was bestowed upon him after death, he eventually would have ceased to be such a mystery. For this very reason, that Dean today is such a romantic and misunderstood figure, it is all the more incredible that Spoto has been able to flesh out so much of the icon's true personality.

So what will be the lasting legacy of James Dean? Spoto feels that Dean's ability to strike an emotional chord with the young will never fade.

“He was something of a latter-day Peter Pan, telling his followers to hurry, to ride, to aim high, but never to grow up, as he never grew up.”(266)

For all his rebellion against society, however, Dean is not seen as a threat to the American way of life like Marlon Brando was. Instead, Dean is seen as a lost child. As Spoto wisely notes, Dean's character in Rebel Without a Cause never resorts to violence, unless provoked. Part Hamlet, part Billy the Kid, Dean is a uniquely American tragic hero.

“He is the contemporary version of that hoariest of American heroes, the cowboy. . .pushing back the frontier for a new generation.” (269, 275)

commenting closed for this article

Preferred Citation Format:

International Gay & Lesbian Review
Los Angeles, CA