On this day, September 30th, in the year 1955, actor James Dean was killed in a car accident. Sixty years later, he is still relevant. He's a cultural icon - the eternal rebel - with a captivating onscreen presence, stealing every scene he's in, even if he's not supposed to be the focus.
When I saw East of Eden for the first time, I was blown away by Jimmy's portrayal of Cal Trask. To this day, it is still one of my favorite films. Jimmy's rare television appearances also give great insight into the potential of his artistry, which sadly would never be cultivated past his countless TV gigs and the three motion pictures he filmed before his death.
I wonder what this man with so much talent, so much passion for his craft could have done if not for that fateful evening six decades ago near Cholame, California. It's one of history's greatest 'What ifs' in the context of the entertainment world, and maybe even beyond that. Had James Dean lived past the age of twenty-four, would he have achieved greatness through his professional work and unique style? Or perhaps true greatness - the ability to transcend generations, to forever stay rebellious and cool, to inspire - can only be earned through immortality. And inspire he has - across the world and across generations - and he continues to do so presently. In fact, James Dean was the inspiration behind Aidan Evans, the main male character in my novels, The Starlight Trilogy, a story of love and redemption set against the backdrop of 1950s Hollywood.
At the time of his death, Jimmy still had a lot to learn about acting, directing, photography . . . life . . . but during his few short years in the spotlight, it's easy to recognize and appreciate his fresh approach to acting, which at the time, revitalized the profession and gave young people someone to look up to after years of being ignored by the film industry. Finally, thanks to Jimmy, young moviegoers had an actor to call their own; someone like them with faults, and angst, and the desire to love and be loved.
We will never know if Jimmy could've lived up to the hype that's surrounded him for the last sixty years . . . whether he could've generated and maintained his cultural icon status had he not died so young and tragically and continued to nurture his talent and churn out brilliant performances in front of or even behind the camera. Perhaps he would've simply faded into obscurity, given his penchant for nonconformity and his dislike of the Hollywood machine.
Knowing how destructive the entertainment industry can be, especially for men like Jimmy whose tough exterior concealed deep vulnerability and uncertainty, it's difficult to imagine that anyone could live up to such high expectations. Though the writer, romantic, and classic Hollywood fan in me likes to believe he could've done some pretty amazing things if given the chance.
You know what? It's okay that we will never have answers to these questions. Because James Dean left behind a solid body of work, which we can all enjoy today, and that's all that matters. After all, it's important to appreciate what you have, not lament over what could have been. And if this means all I'm left with are fabulous movies and teleplays like East of Eden, The Unlighted Road, and A Long Time Till Dawn, then, well, that's all right with me.
STARLIGHT (The Starlight Trilogy #1) on Amazon
STARBRIGHT(The Starlight Trilogy #2) on Amazon
STARDUST (The Starlight Trilogy #3) on Amazon