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SEEING OURSELVES IN JAMES DEAN : 30 Years After His Death, That Unspoken Eloquence Survives

September 29, 1985|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

He made one memorable Broadway appearance (Gide's "The Immoralist") and three films, only one of which, "East of Eden," was very good. But 30 years after his death--a violent death, incidentally, seemingly appropriate for who he was and the way he lived--James Dean is still alive in a fathomlessly disturbing way.

I'm always surprised by how many people of different ages and interests and tastes respond to him (see articles on Page 41). I was 15 when "East of Eden" came out. From the first moment I saw the Pacific surf crashing into the ursine rocks of Monterey, and heard the tangle of rustic Americana and torment in Leonard Rosenman's score, I was primed. And when I saw Dean's lonesome figure, curled inside a pullover and riding atop the freight from Salinas to Monterey, I was gone.

What was that kid, who looked a little like me and dressed like me, doing on that train? It didn't matter. He was going . Just those names held a charm: Salinas. Monterey. And when the story began to develop, its fascination only mounted (even if Julie Harris was nobody's teen-age heartthrob).

The kid was nervous, but moved to do something he didn't seem to understand anymore than we did watching him. He was shy, but he knew about sex (remember the knowing exchange of glances with that Mexican girl in the lettuce field?). He was well-meaning, but a screw-up. People saw trouble in him (which they tended to excuse because of his youth), but with Julie Harris he was tender. Around his father, he was intractably stubborn, rebellious, even mean, but he loved the old man, who ignored him. He drove his brother, the favored child, crazy. He was a sensitive soul in a terrible bind. And he was too inarticulate to make any sense of it.

In short, he was the quintessential American teen-ager, no one of whom is wholly free from trouble, regardless of appearance.

As for me, like his Cal, I was between two worlds. I was a New York street kid who had won a scholarship to an elite prep school and was miserably unhappy--I couldn't hang out with the rich kids, but I had left the streets, and my buddies, behind. My father too was emotionally distant. My mother was a cultured woman trapped in a lot of bad memories. I had a girlfriend, and that turned out to be trouble too.

How would Dean handle stuff like this? When he died that crazy way (what was a Porsche Spider? one wondered back then), I already knew Dostoevsky and Shakespeare and was therefore, fortunately, beyond the ghoulishness of collecting death masks and Dean memorabilia. But I hoped for a long time that the death report was a mistake. When at last that hope evaporated, another, larger kind of hope seemed to go with it--the hope of seeing how this actor who dramatized the undercurrents of his time would shape the plot of the future.

With time, as one's perspective widens, certain things become apparent. The '50s was the first decade in American history wherein the teen-ager became a sociological entity. The war and the Depression that preceded it were over, and the GIs who came home really believed they had made the world safe for democracy--and for their kids, who would be the beneficiaries of everything they had fought for, from Dunkirk to Iwo Jima. That was a heavy psychic burden for youngsters, who inherited a vacuous disassociation from two miserable decades of American life as well.

Teen-agers had money now, and attention. But their energies and uncertainties were at odds with emotional exhaustion, and with the hunger for postwar tranquility their parents tried to shelter in vast suburban tracts. It's no accident that the performers with the most formidable impact on the decade--Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, James Dean--were also considered rebels.

I sensed why I cared. Now I think I understand a little about why everybody else cared.

Pascal wrote: "No two men differ so much as one man differs from his prior self." New York in the '50s and the fellow I was then are long gone. Of course there's always a romanticism attached to those who are cut down young. The more mature critic in me even sees that Dean may not have been a very good actor after all (though the scenes in "East of Eden" between him and Jo Van Fleet contain, for this viewer, sheer virtuoso playing).

But when on rare occasion Dean's name pops up, I always feel that momentarily rapt, perplexed pause, trying to figure out just why he meant what he did, and never coming up with an answer. I feel it too in whoever is talking about him with me. None of the stills you see of him have him looking you in the eye. He seems perpetually hunkered against some foul element, within and without. Most of those pictures are not without gritty humor, and if that permanently distracted gaze is focused on some trouble no one else can see, it's a spirit of trouble all of us know at one time or another. The weight of it is enough to make him that rare, tragic, uniquely modern emblem: the stranger to himself in his own strange land.

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