Today City Connect celebrates the anniversary of the birth of actor James Dean born 6 February 1931. He is a cultural icon of teenage disillusionment, as expressed in the title of his most celebrated film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), in which he starred as troubled Los Angeles teenager Jim Stark. The other two roles that defined his stardom were as loner Cal Trask in East of Eden (1955), and as the surly ranch hand, Jett Rink, in Giant (1956). Dean’s enduring fame and popularity rest on his performances in only these three films, all leading roles. His premature death in a car crash cemented his legendary status.
Dean was the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and remains the only actor to have had two posthumous acting nominations. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked him the 18th best male movie star on their AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars list.
American teenagers of the mid-1950s, when James Dean’s major films were made, identified with Dean and the roles he played, especially that of Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause. This film depicts the dilemma of a typical teenager of the time, who feels that no one, not even his peers, can understand him. Joe Hyams says that Dean was “one of the rare stars, like Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift, whom both men and women find sexy”. According to Marjorie Garber, this quality is “the undefinable extra something that makes a star.” Dean’s iconic appeal has been attributed to the public’s need for someone to stand up for the disenfranchised young of the era, and to the air of androgyny that he projected onscreen. Dean’s “loving tenderness towards the besotted Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause continues to touch and excite gay audiences by its honesty. The Gay Times Readers’ Awards cited him as the male gay icon of all time.”
Today, Dean is often considered an icon because of his “experimental” take on life, which included his ambivalent sexuality. There have been several claims and assertions that Dean has had sexual relationships with both men and women. When questioned about his orientation, he is reported to have said, “No, I am not a homosexual. But, I’m also not going to go through life with one hand tied behind my back.”
William Bast, one of Dean’s closest friends, was Dean’s first biographer (1956). He published a revealing update of his first book, in which, after years of successfully dodging the question as to whether he and Dean were sexually involved, he finally stated that they experimented. In this second book, Bast describes the difficult circumstances of their involvement and also deals frankly with some of Dean’s other reported gay relationships, notably the actor’s friendship with Rogers Brackett, the influential producer of radio dramas who encouraged Dean in his career and provided him with useful professional contacts.
Journalist Joe Hyams suggests that any gay activity Dean might have been involved in appears to have been strictly “for trade”, as a means of advancing his career. Val Holley notes that, according to Hollywood biographer Lawrence J. Quirk, gay Hollywood columnist Mike Connolly “would put the make on the most prominent young actors, including Robert Francis, Guy Madison, Anthony Perkins, Nick Adams and James Dean.” However, the “trade only” notion is debated by Bast and other Dean biographers. Aside from Bast’s account of his own relationship with Dean, Dean’s fellow biker and “Night Watch” member John Gilmore claims he and Dean “experimented” with gay acts on one occasion in New York, and it is difficult to see how Dean, then already in his twenties, would have viewed this as a “trade” means of advancing his career.
Screenwriter Gavin Lambert, himself gay and part of the Hollywood gay circles of the 1950s and 1960s, described Dean as being gay. Rebel director Nicholas Ray is on record as saying that Dean was gay. Author John Howlett believes that Dean was “certainly bisexual”. George Perry’s biography reduces these aspects of Dean’s sexuality to “experimentation”. Bast also shows that Dean had knowledge of gay bars and customs. Consequently, Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon’s book Who’s Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History: From World War II to the Present Day (2001) includes an entry on James Dean. However Bast concludes: “Jimmy was a dabbler, he was learning through experiment… But to say he was gay? That’s ridiculous.”
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