I watched the 1955 James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause for the first time late one summer night. Every evening, I waited for everyone to go to bed so I could watch movies on cable. The quiet night was my safe place. No school in the morning, nothing to do all day but avoid everyone in the house, read comics, and play Mario on Game Boy Advance. At night, I could watch what I wanted to watch without fear of reproach. I saw the queer camp classic But I’m a Cheerleader one of those nights, and in James Dean I recognized Clea DuVall’s bad girl butch look. Dean looked like a bad (girl) butch, too—that parenthesis because I know I’m projecting trans stuff like I’m running a movie reel.
In Rebel Without a Cause, Dean’s character Jim Stark gets picked up by cops one night for being found drunk on the street. Warner Bros. commissioned the movie in response to the 1950s hysteria around “juvenile delinquency,” but director Nicholas Ray made it into something more than a teensploitation picture. At the police station are two other “bad” teens: Judy, a bad girl with father issues (Natalie Wood), and a quiet, nervous boy (Sal Mineo as “Plato”). Jim’s parents have moved the family because Jim got into a fight at the last high school he went to. Jim, Judy, and Plato soon get tied up in tragic circumstances and they hole up together, making what many film critics have called a queered makeshift family. Plato barely hides his desire for Jim’s affections, and James Dean and Sal Mineo give really tender performances. Those characters take care of each other. I’d never seen something like this between men in a story, especially a movie with actors who were so cute. Sal Mineo made me swoon, and the camera seemed to follow every muscle flex of James Dean’s body.
The movie is melodramatic, sometimes to a fault, but when its larger-than-life style works, it felt perfectly what being a conflicted teenager felt like to me at the time. Jim, Judy, and Plato all hurt terribly for affection and care, and when they look for it from their parents, they don’t get it. It can be a little two-dimensional—those moments remind me of something my friend said in high school about The Catcher in the Rye: “It’s good, but [the main character] just uses the word ‘phony’ way too much.” Still, the care that the actors put into their performances, and the director Nicholas Ray into the scenes, felt like care to me, because whoever made this movie seemed to understand me. And they considered those feelings worthy of making a movie about, which to me felt like I was worthy of care and attention. This is not a feeling I had a lot at the time, so when it came it came as a surprise.
I picked up explicit and implicit messages that my hard-to-understand, some-kind-of-queer-or-whatever story didn’t deserve telling, and Rebel showed me tenderness. The actor Martin Sheen said, “[Marlon] Brando taught us how to act, and James Dean how to live.” I think of this as how Dean created his audience by finding a nerve and exposing it. Dean let himself be pretty, vulnerable, and tough all at once. A need to be loved infused Jim Stark and all of Dean’s performances. It seems a very generous act to me.
On the night I saw Rebel, I stayed up all night. I was buzzing with electric energy. In the early blue morning, I walked across the townhouse court to the grassy drainage ditch and watched the sun rise. I sang the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”: “Watch out, the world’s behind you,” a lyric I always interpreted as paranoid, my 24/7 state of mind at the time. When you’re young and you’re queer, you’re always looking behind your back, assessing every situation for its safety or lack thereof.
If we can follow the bouncy ball that takes us from the early 2000s to the early 1950s, we’ll find something that struck me when I read William Bast’s sadly out of print 2006 memoir of his friend and roommate, Surviving James Dean. Bast had written James Dean: A Biography in 1956 when Dean’s death was still fresh, but stigma around queerness prevented him from acknowledging several truths about Dean and himself. In Surviving James Dean, Bast writes of one night on a bus, well before Dean’s film career picked up, when Dean talked about manifestation—what I think of as the (somewhat) non-corny version of The Secret:
I figure there’s nothing you can’t do if you put everything you’ve got into it. The only thing that stops people from getting what they want is themselves. They put too many barriers in their paths. It’s like they’re afraid to succeed…I think, if you’re not afraid, if you take everything you are, everything worthwhile in you, and direct at one goal, the ultimate mark, you’ve got to get there…That’s why I’m going to stick with this thing. I don’t want to be just a good actor. I don’t even want to be the best. I want to grow and grow, grow so tall nobody can reach me. Not to prove anything, but just to go where you ought to go when you devote your whole self and all you are to one thing. Maybe this sounds crazy or egocentric or something, but I think there’s only one true form of greatness…You’ve got to go on and on, never stop at any point.
I like Dean’s phrase “grow so tall nobody can reach me.” And it connects to what he became, culturally—a tall tale, a fairy tale.
The James Dean that was sold as a poster in Blockbuster Video next to a sexy Marilyn clock is as close to the “real” Dean as Disney’s The Sword in the Stone is to the historical King Arthur. So when I talk about Dean this way, I have to remember that I’m creating him as much as an icon as I do when I walk through the medieval wing in the art museum, and imagine knights in armor. In the beginning of T.H. White’s Arthurian epic The Once and Future King, White describes the young Arthur, in contrast to his older stepbrother Kay, as “a born follower. [Arthur] was a hero worshipper.” It reminds me of Morrissey’s 1991 video for “Suedehead,” in which he goes to visit Dean’s hometown.
Dean, too, had his moments. Like I believe T.H. White did, I consider fandom an endearing trait of an artist or person. William Bast describes one night when they happened to see an older Judy Garland perform at CBS, just after MGM had fired her from her contract to devastating effect. Bast writes that he wondered, “Would she perform? Could she perform?” Then she began to sing. Bast writes, “Her delivery was transcendent and the emotion overpowering. I got the feeling halfway through that everyone in that audience was thinking, ‘My God, what have they done to Dorothy!’ […] All the way home, incredulous, Jimmy kept repeating, ‘How did she do that? How did she do that? How the fuck did she do that?’” With no care for decorum or tradition, Garland opened her guts for the audience in a way that Dean had never seen before. We fans love our heroes because they, like Garland’s character in The Wizard of Oz, opened up the world from dull sepia tones to vibrant technicolor, full of possibilities.
In the role-playing game of my heart, as heroes go, Dean’s health is limited since he was a white, cis, able-bodied dude. But when I was in high school, I hadn’t even really heard the word “queer” used in the way that it is now every day for me. Being trans was unthinkable. Dean provided freedom in his posture and his eyes. He pouted. This was not allowed within the social contract of all the straight-seeming boys I knew at my school. I would listen to “Poses” by Rufus Wainwright—“All these poses, such beautiful poses / Makes any boy feel as pretty as princes.” These lyrics sounded gently illicit, and turned a key in me. Dean turned himself into a statue of poses, an image locked in time. And that image has haunted me, pleasantly, since.
As an adult, I read in David Dalton’s biography James Dean: The Mutant King of how Dean, as a kid, rode on the train that housed his mother’s hearse after she died, carrying them to where the funeral would happen. I thought of this when I saw Elia Kazan’s movie East of Eden, which is about Dean’s character Cal Trask, and his hurt for a mom he never knew, and longing for affection from his dad that he’ll never get. There are a couple scenes with Dean sitting on top of a train, wearing a sweater and shoving his arms inside it, writhing with angst, not knowing what to do. What captured me about Dean then, I think, is the idea that queer longing and queer pain could be beautiful and interesting. Dean chose to turn himself inside out for the camera, and that included his tenderness, which I tend to read as a queer tenderness. Dean’s raw, hurt, open heart changed his audience.
James Dean’s favorite book was The Little Prince, and this information twists a little block on the Rubik’s Cube. When I was in high school, boys my age scared me; they all seemed rough and cruel, even though I know now they were likely as terrified of daily life as I was. Stories like Dean’s movies and The Little Prince insisted that the world could be a little kinder, could make space for my inner life. ♦