This has always been one of my favorite shots of James Dean. We’re used to seeing him highly-stylized, flawless and in technicolor– but here he’s just a guy hanging out like anyone else. There are some shots of Dean that I can’t even look at. In Giant, his character ages over the course of the story, so they shaved into his hairline to make it appear receding, and gave him a creepy (and very Sean Penn-like) mustache.
When James Dean was killed in that horrible crash, he had just finished filming Giant and his natural hairline hadn’t grown back in– so he looked older than he actually was when he died. That always seemed ironic and troubling to me.
My fascination with Dean started as a teen– he was my idol. I read something deep and mystical into the fact we had the same birthday. It was all about the angst and feeling like there is no one in the world that understands you– no one. I was sure that James Dean would have understood me.
Back then, a lot of the stories about his sexuality weren’t as widely known as they are now. I just assumed he was straight–he kissed girls in movies, so what was there to know? A lot, apparently. It was a shocker for me– a naive, straight kid growing up on Phoenix. The only point of reference I had for a gay person was Liberace, for cryin’ out loud. I remember reading about all the shenanigans on the set of Rebel Without a Cause– teenage star Natalie Wood having a tryst with director Nicholas Ray, who was in his 50s– James Dean and fellow actor Nick Adams also supposedly involved– Sal Mineo, gay. Then the big shocker– Rock Hudson too. This was all a big surprise and changed my perception of the world.
It was only 20 years ago that I was in high school, but light years apart from today in terms of tolerance. I didn’t know anyone that admitted being gay back then. You just didn’t. Sure there were rumors and talk. All it took to be labeled as gay was to have what somebody considered a gay hairstyle or voice, or a little extra swish in your step. Being called queer was every kid’s worst fear. You just wanted to conform back then.
That was, and still is the appeal of James Dean, aside from his enormous talent and looks– he made being misunderstood cool.