When he died no one had yet considered the tiny body of work Dean left behind as his legacy. No one expected him to die. James Dean's movies represent the only tangible statement he had about his skill. But those movies in themselves proved to be a monumental commentary. The three films illustrate a skill that plumbs depths and exhibits an intelligence unusual in an actor only 24 years of age. The roles he created in those movies expand to dominate the screen against far more experienced actors. The intelligent portion of Hollywood understood that, but as with all professions only a few could see that. Most people who are fascinated by the magnetic appeal Dean was able to project ascribe that appeal to those causes that more define themselves than they do James Dean.
"He represents eternal youth," Legnon says, leaning on the memorial. "If James Dean had lived, he wouldn't be the icon he is. He'd just be an old guy, like [Marlon] Brando or Montgomery Clift or any of the actors that Dean came of age with."
It is easy for strangers to ooze opinion about someone when that person has been six feet under for a half a century. James Byron Dean died when he was 24 years old; he died having completed only three movies but those movies burn with the intelligence James Dean brought to every facet of his life. Many young actors are the product of the need in Hollywood for fresh meat. Not so with James Dean.
Shelby Legnon, who never knew Jimmy, says that if Jimmy had lived he would have been, "just some old guy, like Brando of Montgomery Clift. "
No one could be more wrong. Legnon did not know him.
But his movies speak to those who possess the wit to understand.
Jimmy was an individual who saw clearly and who had values that were
defined and honed through years of thought.
If he had lived Jimmy would have transformed the entertainment industry;
injecting the vibrant ideas and values that moved him originally into
acting. Because that industry supplies the memes and cultural content of
so much that we, as Americans, live and breathe every day of our lives,
and because the world watches us as the edge of cultural change, it is
fair to say that James Dean would have changed the world. That was his
intention and his aim; to impact the world through the craft of acting.
He understood how it could be used. He intended to use it.
James Dean had confronted such issues and the life of the spirit,
mortality, the profound differences between people, and the ideas that
drive the world when he was very young. He began life as a Mama's boy,
enveloped in maternal attention. He shared with his mother a world of
make-believe.; they also talked about ideas. That world was shattered
when his mother died and he was relocated to Indiana to live with his
aunt and uncle, two people who were decent, kind, hard-working and very
different. He was a sensitive child. He did not forget his mother, he
continued to remember and to grieve, creating an intense internal life
of ideas. Those ideas eventually took him into acting. People who are
highly intelligent and creative make their own rules.
I knew James Dean; he was no hormone-driven Hollywood wind up doll. He
was insightful, intellectually alive and very aware of the kind of
people and motives that confronted him in the reality of Hollywood,
1955. To be successful in Hollywood you had to play the games Hollywood
expected. Jimmy understood people; he understood their limitations and
their prejudices. He had learned to project what was expected of him.
The Hollywood perception of James Dean is colored by the timing of when
he died and by the limited access he allowed to those whose approval he
needed to succeed in the career he was passionately pursuing. If he had
died three years later he would have had time to let Hollywood know who
he really was; if he had died ten years later he would have changed
Hollywood. But that is not what happened.
There was only one James Dean. How much of him you saw depended on how
much it was safe for him to show.
Jimmy knew what Hollywood wanted him to be so that is what they saw. He
was much more.
I have spent my life fascinated by ideas and James Dean was a major
influence in creating that interest.
James Dean explained to me the process of photosynthesis by telling me
when I was just a small child that, "Trees breathe; Live exists on Earth
because the green growing things breathe in the light of the Sun and
produce the oxygen that we, and all life, needs to survive. " An amazing
way to make that process real and viscerally available to a child.