James Dean: Dreams and Sexual Truths
By Jeremy Kinser
It’s been nearly 60 years since Dean died. He had such a paltry filmography. Why do people still care about this man? Why are we still talking about him?
I think part of it is the role he fills in popular culture. He’s certainly ubiquitous as a sort of icon of that era. Interestingly, I don’t personally think — and people who knew him I think would agree — he was really nothing like the sort of iconic image that people have come to associate with him. I do feel most people know who this guy was because of something they’ve seen on a T-shirt or a coffee mug in a souvenir shop, but really he was a very different sort of person. And maybe, in a way, he was the first postmodern film star. While I think he was cynical about the constraints of the Hollywood system and the star system, I think he was also very aware of its possibility. I think that the famous photo shoot in New York that seems to be how most people remember James Dean — that was something that was entirely constructed by the man himself. That was maybe an image he wanted to portray.
Are you referring to the famous "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" photo?
Exactly. Yeah, the brownie camera... the sort of dark, brooding, sensitive bad boy walking through the rain in New York City. There's a very interesting sort of fuck-it-all toughness to those images that was very much constructed. But it was a brilliant construction.
So I think he filled this role in popular culture as a sort of icon of an era. Maybe he wasn’t anything like people imagined him to be. On the one hand, that’s what I think led to his enduring popularity, on the other, I think he was an actor who fundamentally changed the way actors act on screen. He’s the first actor to bring a sort of realism to young characters in films, but he was also one of the first actors to really take the method and act out — what Brando and Clift were doing —and taking it to its natural light. His performances were so much more intense than anything that has come before or anything that’s come since.
Hence his being referred to as “the first American teenager.”
Exactly. I think he endures because of his constructed status as an icon, but also because, in a very real way, he changed the way actors act. And that’s a very significant life achievement.
One area of his persona that people are still talking about is his sexual orientation. Your film covers how he used his sexuality to get ahead. He was often kept by gentlemen who could further his career. What is your take on his sexual orientation?
My take is that everything I have to say about it is in the film. I think the notion that he was non-heterosexual — whatever that means to people — is pretty uncontroversial by now. Another interviewer pointed out a few months back that Elizabeth Taylor said as much on national television. So it’s strange to me that it’s still "controversial." I do get that question a lot, I guess more conservative audiences consider this controversial because it has been something they’ve latched onto. The film has not been without controversy, but to me it’s a completely uncontroversial stance. In fact, Dean himself was very witty and sort of open about the possibilities of sexuality even in his press interviews in the 1950s. And wasn’t that progressive for the time?
Do you get the feeling that people today want him to have been this gay pioneer? Do you get that sense from people who watch the film?
No, I guess I’ve gotten the sense that there’s still an element of danger and intrigue to the way Dean lived and not just in terms of sexuality but in terms of the ways he experimented with pleasure and pain, the way he lived his life in an intense series of extremities, not unlike Arthur Rimbaud which is why the film starts with Rimbaud before we even make our way into Dean’s life. I think he was somebody who was very aware of the possibility of extremes and how they could be channeled into art. In our — in many ways — more conservative modern time, I think that’s something that is still appealing in its dangerousness.
Speaking further in that regard, there are so many crazy myths and urban legends and such that have sprung up around him. People project their fantasies onto this guy. What do think of the kind of things or stories that call him “a human ashtray?” You touch on that in the film, right?
Yeah, we do. What we don’t do in the film is make it clear whether what you’re seeing on screen is reality, is a dream, is Jimmy’s fantasy, is mine, is the audience’s... I mean, I think whether the human ashtray story is true or not, Dean certainly propagated it, so again I think he was somebody who probably would have enjoyed the legacy that he’s left in all its ambiguities.
James Preston is mesmerizing. How did you decide he was right to play Dean?
My feeling — I mean, and tell me if you agree — his performance is really not like any of the ones that came before. I think it was a totally different and very interesting reading of the part.
Yeah, I’ll give you that. He’s beautiful to look at, but he conveys this essence that was like Dean in East of Eden, this sort of innocent-looking kid finding his way — that’s what stood out to me.
Yeah, well, you know, James Preston was a kid from Texas finding his way in Los Angeles and he found his way into this movie. He was a 19-year-old who dropped out art school, got in his truck and drove to LA to become an actor and — like so many — had a tough time getting anyone to listen to him here. So I think there’s kind an interesting and really fruitful correlation between his life and Dean’s. Dean was a kid from Indiana who moved to Los Angeles dropped out of UCLA, and really got eaten alive by the Hollywood system, trying to find his way into a movie. So I think that’s something our James certainly channeled as he was preparing for the role, what it’s like to sort of be uprooted and lost swimming with sharks in Hollywood.