I could write a book about James Dean. It probably wouldn’t be a good book, but it would be a long one. Dean spent his boyhood on a farm in the small town of Fairmount, Indiana, an hour north on I-69 from my own boyhood home of Indianapolis. I don’t know for certain that the proximity of my growing-up place to Dean’s growing-up place explains why I so readily identified with the characters he portrayed in his three major films (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant), but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.
And while the characters in Dean’s three main movies were quite different in some ways, they shared one big thing in common: all three young men had unloving, ineffectual, or nonexistent parents. Dean’s mother died when he was nine and his father sent him to be raised by an aunt and uncle on that farm in Fairmount. I don’t know for certain that Dean’s estrangement from his birth parents by death and abandonment contributed to his effectiveness in essaying young men with similar wounds, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt. Here’s the deal. When you have no parents or shitty parents, you sort of have to raise yourself. Chance the not always reliable counsel of authority figures at school and in the community. Resist the more tempting types of peer pressure. Find family where you can.
It’s a treacherous, anger-making road and there’s always the risk you’ll do injury to self or others along the way. Like Jim in Rebel. Or that, like Cal in Eden, you’ll torture yourself needlessly by continuing to seek love where it can’t be found. Or that you’ll end up drunk and stunted, incapable of receiving love or giving love, like poor rich Jett in Giant.James Dean ripped through acting the way he ripped through life. It’s hard to believe that he got as good as he got at the age of only 24 and difficult to imagine where he could have gone from there. Dean was a bright guy with aspirations to write and direct, so maybe that’s the direction he would have taken if his road hadn’t proven so short.