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  • The James Dean Story
  • Justin Owen Rawlins
The James Dean Story (1957). Directed by Robert Altman and George W. George. Distributed by Warner Bros. 81 minutes.

Though similarly distributed and publicized under the imprimatur of Warner Bros, The James Dean Story is rarely remembered alongside the iconic actor’s other texts—East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant—that constitute his brief Hollywood career. This is, to some extent, a reflection of the promotional strategy employed by Warner Bros. to distinguish Story as more than an ordinary Hollywood production. Studio publicity frames the film as unique in the comprehensive reach of its research, while the opening credits declare that what follows is “[a] different kind of motion picture.” In this sense, Story stands out as more a “Dean” film than its three predecessors. It [End Page 110] aspires to collapse the “reel” figure for the sake of the “real” account and clamors to encapsulate the young man’s cultural resonance through a comprehensive study of his life.

The James Dean Story begins at the end, September 30, 1955. A point-of-view shot situates the viewer on the grill of a car speeding along a desolate road amidst an arid wasteland. The infamous date appears and is quickly displaced by an oncoming truck that suddenly veers into the viewer’s path. “James Dean died today,” narrator Martin Gabel states coolly over the imminent collision frozen in time. “He had lived with a great hunger.” Set against photographs of the actor, the film explicitly characterizes its approach to Dean as reportage rather than representation:

The presence of the leading character in this film has been made possible by the use of existing motion picture material, tape recordings of his voice and by means of a new technique—dynamic exploration of the still photograph…there are not actors in this film—all characters are portrayed by the people themselves.

The ensuing narrative recounts familiar biographical details with an eye toward excavating the more profound psycho-social implications of his life. The loss of his mother imbues all subsequent events as invariably tragic. Lifelong feelings of loneliness, insecurity, and alienation are traced back to this formative trauma, and each momentous occasion is irrevocably tinged with vulnerability. Though it provides an outlet for personal expression, Dean’s art also opens him to the magnification, exploitation, and subsequent fortification of his anxieties. His creative endeavors—acting, painting, and sculpture—thus provide windows into his tortured and mysterious inner self. One sculpture in particular is noted for the way it expresses the young man’s “need for recognition and self-esteem.” “He named it ‘Self,’” states Gabel, “but it had no face.”

Still images, culled from an estimated eight thousand gathered for the production of The James Dean Story, are punctuated by interviews. There are no famous faces; Marcus and Ortense Winslow—the Aunt and Uncle who raised Dean—appear, as do assorted other family members and acquaintances from Fairmount, New York, and Los Angeles. The contexts within which they know him differ—and their memories consequently vary—but the witnesses collectively reaffirm the narrative’s fateful trajectory. That he is “hard to understand,” shy, intuitive, observant, and moody as a result of his mother’s death and father’s seeming abandonment undercuts the maliciousness of his behavior—unlike his contemporary Marlon Brando—by rooting his idiosyncratic behavior in the disruption of a normative childhood. One friend acts as Dean’s analyst, telling him that he sabotages his [End Page 111] relationships out of fear that his real self will drive people away. His subsequent return to Fairmount is framed as an attempt to come to terms with himself, his tormented past.

His stardom is conveyed through a montage of auto racing, dancing, bullfighting and bongo drumming. The change in tone is intended to be illusory, however, for such dangerous hobbies are coded as sublimations of the sadness he fails to overcome. Drums dominate the soundtrack, conveying both the idiosyncrasy of Dean’s hobbies—Method actors like Brando were similarly linked to the instrument—and the frenetic pace at which Dean supposedly consumed life and approached death. The latent danger of his...


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pp. 110-113
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