This glorifying of Dean is all wrong,” Marlon Brando told Truman Capote in 1957 for a New Yorker article. He went on to say that Dean ”wasn’t a hero” but ”a lost boy trying to find himself.” All wrong or not, the glorifying of James Dean hasn’t lost any momentum. The crash of his speeding Porsche on Sept. 30, 1955, when he was only 24, began a process of canonization, a quick transition from actor to icon. It anchored the legend in lost promise, tragedy, and even martyrdom, always a good career move for a saint. And it left intact the image of Dean preserved in the three movies he made — East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant. In those movies, Dean dominates the screen with a strange, unassertive, brooding adolescent magnetism. Brando was right and wrong. It’s precisely the lost-boyishness that accounts for the glorifying. Dean, who wanted to know Brando but didn’t, was in his debt both as actor and as symbol of estrangement. But Dean is poetry to Brando’s prose, ethereal where Brando is earthy.
Dean has something in common with another icon, J.D. Salinger’s lost-boy antihero Holden Caulfield. There’s something radically innocent and unworldly in his defiant and painfully vulnerable sensitivity. It’s the aura of purity in Dean’s screen presence that condensed after his death into a halo, and has made him the object of a quasireligious cult.
Some of the most intriguing pages in Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean, Paul Alexander’s steamy and soggy biography, are about the rituals of the cult, or Deaners, as the most devout fans call themselves: scores of fan clubs throughout North America and Europe; hordes of pilgrims descending on Fairmount, Ind., Dean’s hometown and burial place; pilgrims caught in the act of trying to sleep, hold seances, or make love on the grave; memorial sculptures, tattoos, and ashtrays; suicide pacts on the anniversary of his death; testimonials of mystical communion (”His spirit is in all of us”); and, of course, rumors that he’s still alive somewhere. Dreams could serve as a skeptic’s textbook on how little spiritual capital it takes to initiate a religion.
Alexander is better at describing the Dean phenomenon than explaining it. Much of the book is devoted to Dean’s sex life, apparently mostly homosexual. The author has been diligent tracking down the evidence, which points to seduction by a Methodist minister in Fairmount when Dean was a teenager and numerous affairs with older men who advanced his career and assorted younger men. Alexander concedes that Dean also had affairs with women, but he discounts them, including the significance of the actress Pier Angeli, who in the standard Dean legend crushed him by marrying Vic Damone, as Dean gunned his motorcycle across the street from the church.
Alexander wants Dean gay, not bisexual, and insists that the necessity of concealing his sexuality was both tragic and a source of his ambiguous appeal on screen. But he isn’t convincing on these points, and he spends most of the book getting carried away. Out of interviews or his own imagination, he has conjured up pages of sexual episodes with a meticulousness that has more to do with pornography than biography, and when dealing with Dean’s unhappy family life — his mother died when he was 9, and his father was cold and literally distant — his prose goes limp with vicarious self-pity. To this he adds a cliche-ridden account of the ’50s, which raises the wrong questions (without answering them) about Dean’s cultural significance. In the ’50s, the postwar culture began to make room for adolescents to express, celebrate, or wallow in the alienation that they had always felt for the adult world, and Dean, a sensitive and reckless archetype of eternal youth, compellingly completed the pattern. The fascination can be felt even in this skewed book. C