If the weather is fine, as it often is that time of the year, to drive on California Highway 46 west from Lost Hills toward Paso Robles is to feel an almost indefinable sense of well-being. The road slopes downhill toward the town of Cholame with the most seductive gentleness, and even drivers who don't like to speed will be tempted.
James Dean, who did like to speed and had gotten a ticket just two hours before, had reasons besides the pleasures of the road, then called Highway 466, to be feeling good on the early evening of Sept. 30, 1955.
Not only was he on the way to a road race in a ride he adored, a newly purchased silver Porsche 550 Spyder sports car, he had just wrapped "Giant," his biggest picture yet, costarring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. "East of Eden," his debut film as a star, had opened to great success a few months before and his second, "Rebel Without a Cause" was headed for theaters. For a 24-year-old actor, things could not be more promising. Then, within minutes, James Dean was dead.
That death, the result of a head-on collision with Don Turnupseed's black and white Ford coupe making an ill-advised left turn, ended up being the final element in a perfect storm of celebrity. It catapulted Dean into a level of "live fast, die young" fame so extraordinary -- including an unprecedented and unequaled two posthumous Oscar nominations -- even the ambitious actor himself could not have imagined it.
Dean's young age and his good looks, his acting ability and what he was most skilled at, all combined with the cataclysmic way he died to cause an uproar that has yet to quiet down. While other actors are celebrated on the anniversary of their birth, with Dean death has always trumped life, and this year, the 50th after the crash, is going to witness an unprecedented outpouring of media attention for a man whose Hollywood career lasted but 16 months.
Although Dean books are already thick on the land (personal favorites include the 1,500-entry "The Unabridged James Dean: His Life and Legacy from A to Z" and another subtitled "James Dean's Sexsational Lurid Afterlife in the Fan Magazines") at least two new ones are scheduled for publication. "James Dean," by George Perry, is generously illustrated and authorized by the Dean estate, while "James Dean: Fifty Years Ago" focuses on the remarkable series of portraits taken by Magnum photographer Dennis Stock.
There are also two major and quite different documentaries waiting in the wings. Debuting on PBS on May 11 will be "James Dean: Sense Memories," a poetic film directed by Gail Levin for the American Masters series that leans heavily on interviews with those who knew the actor.
Coming to the Cannes Film Festival in May is Michael J. Sheridan's "James Dean: Forever Young," a 10-years-in-the-making event that features fascinating clips both from Dean's hard-to-see live TV work (29 of his 37 shows have been unearthed) and from his still earlier cameos in films such as Sam Fuller's "Fixed Bayonets" and the Jerry Lewis-starring "Sailor Beware."
"Forever Young" will have its American debut in what's being touted as the world's largest digital drive-in theater, being set up in Dean's birthplace of Marion, Ind. ("Where Cool Was Born"), in time for the James Dean Fest, an annual event expected to attract at least 100,000 fans from around the world June 3 through 5. Locally, the Nuart Theater will double-bill "Eden" and "Rebel" June 10 through 16.
The sine qua non of all these tributes will be Dean's trio of films, to be released May 31 by Warner Bros. as "The Complete James Dean Collection" DVD gift set. All three will also be available separately and each will have an additional disc with the usual special features (including deleted scenes, wardrobe tests and documentaries), but the jewel of the crown is "East of Eden," never before available on DVD and unavailable in any form for 10 years.
HIS INFLUENCE ON ATTITUDE
Those films hold the key to the essential Dean question: Why all the fuss? That astonishing cusp-of-stardom death at a young age aside, why has Dean attracted and held all this attention? What are the factors that have enabled him to live for so long, as the fan magazines would have it, beyond the grave?
It starts with the basics, including a name as clean and uncluttered as his profile, and Dean's timeless, almost androgynous good looks. And not just in the movies.
For while other actors were as photogenic on screen as Dean, including "Giant" costar Elizabeth Taylor, it's difficult to think of another star who made such an impact with his still images. Dean was not only photographed almost endlessly, he looks remarkable in just about every shot. And that was no accident.