THE hooded downcast eyes, the slouch, both defiant and vulnerable, the soft whiny voice — all spoke of the loneliness of being young. And when James Dean died in 1955 at the age of 24, a star after making just three films, he left us with the image of an unfinished soul arrested in midgrowth. Like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean had something in him that made you want to adopt and nurture him, to fill the void that could never be filled. In Dean’s case as in Monroe’s, the impulse and the image came out of something quite real: he was 9 years old and an only child when his adored mother died of cancer; his father, with whom he was then living in Los Angeles, sent him back to Indiana to be brought up by relatives.
The wordless fury and hurt of abandonment were the scrap metal that Dean alchemized into cinematic gold, prophetically creating a mold for adolescent angst for years to come. It was as if all the qualities, good and bad, that came to define the teen-ager as a creature in perpetual rebellion were there in embryo in Dean — the idealism, the rage against 50’s conformism and adult hypocrisy, the yearning for paternal love, but also the narcissism and self-pity, the cult of woundedness, the rejection of stoicism. The paradox extends to, perhaps arises out of, a sexuality that seems unresolved, permanently suspended between male and female. Thus we think of him in triangles — with Julie Harris and Richard Davalos in “East of Eden,” shared by Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo in “Rebel Without a Cause” and by Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in “Giant.”
Like Marlon Brando, Dean grew up engaged in a classic conflict: the artistic son of an artistic mother and conventionally tight-lipped father, out of place in the Midwest, a small-framed boy compensating with sports, yearning to be a man and simultaneously retreating into thumb-sucking childhood.
In that stubborn refusal, or inability, to become an adult — and in Dean it seems both choice and compulsion — he gives eloquent expression to our own pre-Oedipal yearnings and confusion, the unwillingness to relinquish one love for the other, one identification for the other. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” the first biography of Dean to center on the star’s sexuality, is an attempt to dispel the confusion and plant Dean firmly in the homosexual camp.
Dean’s presumed homosexual activities have hardly been secret. Several of the more common rumors appeared in “James Dean: A Short Life,” Venable Herndon’s sensitive 1974 biography, including the story that Dean got out of the military by claiming he was homosexual and his habit of sleeping with “casting couch” producers and lamenting the act afterward. However, allegations of Dean’s homosexuality were offset by his romantic entanglements, most spectacularly the passionate crush on the actress Pier Angeli.
Paul Alexander, whose previous books include “Rough Magic,” about Sylvia Plath, and “Death and Disaster,” about Andy Warhol, concedes that Dean may have been in love with Angeli, but suspects that this relationship proved to him that he was not heterosexual. Otherwise, Mr. Alexander maintains, Dean would subsequently have become involved with another woman instead of with “one of the most notorious homosexual men in Hollywood,” whom the book does not name.
A good deal of this biography duplicates material provided by the Herndon book 20 years ago, but whereas that book supplied more information on Dean’s career, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” enlarges upon previously closeted matters like Dean’s sexual relationship with James DeWeerd, a Wesleyan minister in Fairmount, Ind., with a known predilection for art, bullfight films and gatherings of teen-age boys. (“In all probability,” Mr. Alexander writes, “Jimmy lost his virginity to DeWeerd.”) As it proceeds to recount Dean’s shifting tastes, evolving from father figures to contemporaries, the book is an odd mixture of scrupulous research and scurrilous innuendo: pornographic descriptions of lovemaking with those male partners who have been willing or eager to testify (i.e., nobodies) and hints of couplings with somebodies — producers, a composer — who remain anonymous.
What we never get in “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is the sense of how Dean felt on any of these occasions. If he did become a member of the boy harem of a minister, how much anxiety did it induce? Did he really get out of the draft by calling himself a homosexual — this at a time, right after World War II, when to make such a declaration, true or untrue, would have been extraordinary? After all, even the word “cancer” was then taboo (Dean never knew that this was what killed his mother, thus contributing to his sense of mystery and abandonment).
The book is very much a product of our exhaustively exhuming times, proudly exposing what a more repressed society forced — or allowed — to remain hidden. Yet except for those whose particular fantasies are being tickled, the mere recounting of sexual activity is not all that interesting, so what emerges is an opening of doors and a narrowing of focus.
No doubt Mr. Alexander thinks he is doing Dean a posthumous service, clearing things up, repeating the story (also reported in the Herndon biography) of a friend who apparently accosted Dean at a party in Malibu the night before he died and “demanded that he be more open about his homosexuality.” Mr. Alexander concurs with this putative friend, who got into an argument with Dean when he urged the actor to stop the humiliating practice of going on dates arranged by the studio. That Mr. Alexander feels this was a cheap practice and an unconscionable burden is clear from an early passage in which he proclaims what amounts to the driving thesis of the book.
Warner Brothers, says the author, painted Dean as “a young, virile Casanova who dated one Hollywood starlet after another” (an image that would more aptly apply to the merchandising of Rock Hudson), while, as an unnamed producer said, “Basically . . . he lived his life as a homosexual.” Mr. Alexander maintains that this compromise “was a tragedy, and perhaps a much more poignant one than the tragedy that unfolded on the early evening of Sept. 30, 1955, when a driver who says he didn’t see Dean coming pulled out in front of Dean’s beautiful sleek Porsche.” Oh! Going out on dates with women was a greater tragedy than death? This is arrant nonsense, the hyperbole of gender politics.
If the social machinery, including the charades of studio publicists promoting a heterosexual ideal, was narrowly biased, the homosexual need to repudiate heterosexual urges or bisexuality sometimes seems even more intense; the gender guardians on both sides are alike in being uneasy with the forms and impulses that do not have a name, the in-betweens, the little bit of bent in all of us.
What’s more, those in public life are all forced to make compromises, and the larger the public, the more limiting the choices. Indeed, from Mr. Alexander’s evidence, Dean felt far fewer of the inhibitions the rest of us feel in following our sexual impulses. And if he could keep himself in sports cars with a $100,000-per-picture contract, was he really going to begrudge going to a few benefits with a female on his arm?
Dean’s confusion probably was painful, but it went beyond anything that declaring one’s sexual identity could relieve. More important, it was his confusion that spoke to us, his androgyny that illumined some shadowy corner of our own lives. Mr. Alexander’s well-meaning stab at clarity may titillate, but it adds no light.
PROC. BY MOVIES