The name James Dean is synonymous with teenage rebellion, due in part to his iconic roles exemplifying the misunderstood youth of the 1950s. His tragic death at the age of 24 has further immortalized the actor as a renegade not bound by society’s rules. Now a director who worked with him has claimed the screen icon pushed even more of the era’s boundaries in his private life.
Despite his untimely demise after starring in only three movies, Dean is one of the best-known stars of the 20th century. His signature bomber jacket, white T-shirt, quiffed hair and cigarette nonchalantly hanging from his mouth were the epitome of cool. They have influenced style and popular culture ever since.
Indeed, his brooding good looks have been lusted after by generations of women, and imitated by generations of men. Adding to his appeal were his real-life interest in sports vehicles and the anti-hero persona afforded him in the movie Rebel Without a Cause. Whether or not this role reflected his off-screen character hardly mattered.
Certainly, Dean had a string of girlfriends and was frequently photographed with some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. These included Swiss bombshell Ursula Andress and dancer and actress Liz Sheridan, who wrote biography Dizzy & Jimmy: My Life with James Dean; A Love Story. Another long-term girlfriend was Italian actress Pier Angeli.
It is not too much to state that Dean, through his roles, helped to create the concept of being a teenager. Before his movies East of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause, society mainly recognized the states of childhood and adulthood. Dean’s movie roles helped identify an in-between state of confusion and inquisitiveness, a universal coming-of-age.
But perhaps because of his sudden death when he was so young, there is some mystery surrounding Dean’s own upbringing and personal relationships. He came into the world in Marion, Indiana on February 8, 1931. Then when he was at elementary school, his family moved to Los Angeles, California.
When Dean was still very young, mom Mildred, to whom he was very close, died of cancer. The actor-to-be, only nine years old at the time, was sent away to his aunt and uncle back in Indiana. The future star was to remain living with them on their farm until he was 18.
It was during this time that he formed a relationship with Pastor Rev. James DeWeerd. Disturbingly, actress Elizabeth Taylor revealed in an interview with website The Daily Beast that Dean had told her he was sexually abused by a minister. This apparently happened just a couple of years after his mother’s death, making him only 11 at the time.
The conversation apparently occurred when the pair grew to be friends on the set of cult movie Giant. Whether the person Dean was referring to was DeWeerd is unknown. However, author Billy J. Harbin claimed that the star had a sexual relationship with his pastor towards the end of his time at high school.
Whatever the nature of DeWeerd and Dean’s friendship, the cleric certainly influenced the young actor in a number of ways. It was partly through him that the star was to cultivate his later fatal interest in fast cars and his love of culture. Whether or not it was sexual, the two formed a close bond.
Subsequently, after graduating from high school, the aspiring star moved back to California in May 1949. Dean reunited with his father, who had remarried, and moved in to live with him. Their relationship remained somewhat fraught, however, and they fell out when the teen decided to drop his studies in law to pursue acting.
The gamble initially paid off, and Dean was soon cast in a Pepsi commercial. When significant movie roles weren’t forthcoming, however, he moved to New York where he took on a series of odd jobs while attempting to get a break. One of these was trying out stunts on popular TV staple Beat the Clock.
But it was said that Dean, who was fit and determined, was fired because he could complete the tasks too quickly. Instead, he decided to return to his drama studies, this time at the city’s prestigious Actors Studio. He was one of the youngest students ever to be accepted. Soon after, he starred in a Broadway adaptation of classic French novel The Immoralist.
The role created a buzz around the young actor. He was auditioned by novelist John Steinbeck himself for a part in the movie adaptation of East of Eden. The heartthrob got the part, and filming began in April 1954. Dean played the part of Cal Trask, the wayward son of a failed farmer. Although he becomes rich speculating on beans, he is still rejected by his father.
Dean’s performance was a triumph, and he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Tragically, the actor was not alive to receive the acclaim. On his way to a motor race in Salinas on September 30, 1955, Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder collided with a Ford Tudor.
The icon was killed instantly. The mechanic travelling with him was catapulted out of the car but survived, as did the relatively uninjured driver of the Ford. Dean, who had just begun competing in road races, had been given a speeding ticket just a couple of hours before.
Before his untimely death, the actor had finished filming the most iconic role of his brief career, Rebel Without a Cause. The 24 year-old played Jim Stark, a middle-class teen with a turbulent home life. Stark reluctantly becomes caught up in a deadly game of tit-for-tat with an L.A. gang before making amends with his father.
The star’s performance was widely praised on the film’s release, which came a few weeks after his death. But it was Dean’s third and final movie role, in 1956 release Giant, that would earn the actor another posthumous Academy nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
In the movie, Dean starred alongside on-screen husband and wife Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. He played the part of Jett Rink, a Texan jack of all trades who becomes rich when he strikes oil. Rink is in love but rejected by the object of his desires, Taylor’s character Leslie.
In real life, Dean’s own relationships were also somewhat tumultuous. His high-profile courtship of Angeli was claimed by some to be a sham. The actress compared the couple to Romeo and Juliet in David Dalton’s biography of Dean, James Dean: The Mutant King. But others doubted the veracity of the affair.
The director of East of Eden, Elia Kazan, was among them. “He always had uncertain relations with girlfriends,” he said in a quote ascribed to him by writer Paul Donnelley in Fade to Black: A Book of Movie Obituaries. Others went even further in their assessments of Dean’s affairs of the heart.
Take director Jim Sheldon, who worked on TV classics including The Twilight Zone, The Fugitive and M*A*S*H. He alleged in a The Hollywood Reporter magazine interview in 2016 that he got Dean his first jobs. What’s more, he added that he knew that the star had sexual relationships with men.
Sheldon said in the interview, which was conducted shortly before his own death at the age of 95, that he himself didn’t sleep with Dean. But, he added, “I know people who did. I know one guy in particular who I introduced him to who gave Jimmy a couple of jobs and I know that they had sex.”
We saw before how actress Liz Sheridan documented her relationship with Dean in her book Dizzy and Jimmy. But Sheldon somewhat rubbished her version of events. He said in the interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “A lot of people have [made that claim]. Some of us didn’t talk about it.”
He went on in the shocking exposé, “But this director, [the late] Bob Stevens, did…he had just gotten his director’s job at CBS and they had a little thing before Jimmy really took off. While he was in New York. ‘Before he signed with the agent, I got him.’”
There have been other rumors about the actor’s sexuality. Author Don Graham made some salacious claims in his book Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film. One of the most surprising was that Dean and Hudson shared a kiss on the mouth.
In the book, Graham claimed that both actors were struggling with their homosexuality. However Hudson, whose real name was Roy Fitzgerald, didn’t appeal to Dean, as he could be too effeminate and would allegedly sometimes dress in women’s clothes. The rising star even apparently accused Hudson of “trying to queer him.”
But that reportedly didn’t stop Dean grabbing the older star one day and kissing him full on the lips. The alleged act seemed to be more of an antagonistic and playful one, however, as the book suggested the two stars were vying for the affection of Taylor rather than each other.
However seemingly this rapport was for Hudson a platonic, rather than a sexual, one. The actress later claimed that she would have slept with her on-screen husband in real life if he hadn’t been gay. According to the book, Hudson was aware of his sexuality from the age of nine, but it was a secret he was to take to the grave.
There was also a great deal of mystery surrounding Dean’s own sexuality. Nonetheless, the book claimed that there were rumours of his liaisons with men to help him get roles. Another of the actor’s biographers, Joe Hyams, was quoted as saying his involvement with men was “for trade.”
Other commentators disagree that his involvement with men was purely to further his career. Biographer and friend William Bast, said he and Dean “experimented” sexually. Taylor herself in a speech in 2001 called Dean gay. The actor himself, however, took a more ambiguous stance on his sexuality.
Even though he said he had declared himself gay to “dodge the draft,” he later gave an intriguing response when asked if he was interested in men. Dean is reported to have said, “No, I’m not homosexual. But I’m not going to go through life with one hand tied behind my back.”
Actor Mark Rydell, a friend of Dean’s, told Larry King in a special program about the star in 2004, “I don’t think he was essentially homosexual. I think that he had very big appetites, and I think he exercised them.” Dean’s ex-girlfriend Liz Sheridan, who was also being interviewed, put it a slightly different way.
“He didn’t have a huge appetite,” she said. “He had an interesting appetite to try everything, and he was dared to do a lot of things that he didn’t do.” She also alleged that the star had admitted to her he had “succumbed” to a big producer who had picked him up in a parking lot.
Hudson was not the only other male actor with whom Dean was said to have had a flirtation. A book published in 2016 titled James Dean: Tomorrow Never Comes, claimed that the star had a fling with fellow screen legend Marlon Brando. However, the alleged relationship was apparently somewhat unequal.
Stanley Haggart, a close acquaintance of Dean’s, said in the tome that Brando, who was several years older, trifled with the younger star’s affections. “I got the impression that Jimmy was engaged in a cat-and-mouse affair with Brando, with Brando being the cat, of course.”
“Brando seemed to be toying with Jimmy for his own amusement. I think Brando was sadistically using Jimmy, who followed him around like a lovesick puppy with his tongue wagging.” Further claims in the book included an allegation that Brando would make his young admirer observe him engaging in sexual activity with other people.
Other sources corroborate the fact that Dean was at the very least a huge admirer of Brando’s, and idolized the older star. He even adopted Brando’s habit of playing the bongo drums. Truman Capote, when interviewing Brando as part of his The Duke in His Domain profile, called Dean “well nigh-plagiaristic” in his emulation of some of the more senior actor’s habits.
Brando was more open about his sexuality than Dean, saying, “Like a large number of men, I, too have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed.” In fact, his sexual appetite was legendary. As well as sleeping with hundreds of women and fathering as many as 15 children, he was accused of having had an affair with Richard Pryor by the comedian’s widow.
However Dean chose to live his life, of course, was entirely his own affair. His reputation as one of the most iconic actors that ever graced our screens endures. And an air of mystery surrounding his sexuality will surely only serve to increase his appeal to future generations of both men and women.