Tuesday, September 3, 2013

James Dean's Last Stop

That James Dean continues to be a Hollywood icon 58 years after his death, is rather amazing.  While watching So You Think You Can Dance on t.v. last week, Mary Murphy, a judge on the show, compared one of the male dancers to James Dean.  Why is this actor (who would be 82 years old today if he had lived)  still talked about?  Why is he so beloved?  And continually honored?

For me, it is his portrayal of Cal Trask in East of Eden that makes him so great.  For others, it was Rebel Without a Cause that cemented his fame.  John Steinbeck, however, is my favorite author and every time I read East of Eden, it is James Dean I see.  Steinbeck himself met the young actor and approved the casting, commenting that he was perfect for the role.  Those eyes!  Those slumped over shoulders!  He played the role of the angst-ridden, misunderstood son, to perfection.  During the filming of East of Eden, Dean improvised a lot and with such brilliance that the director kept much of the footage in the movie.   The scene where Cal hugs his father, played by Raymond Massey, after his birthday gift was rejected, took Massey completely by surprise and makes me break down in tears every time I see it; it is so heart-wrenching.

  Although the movie's story is but a fraction of the book, James Dean will be forever connected to the great author.   That he was killed while driving his Porsche to Salinas, California--John Steinbeck country--seems oddly poetic.

My travel buddy and I stopped at Blackwell's Corner in Lost Hills, California, last July, in order to pay tribute to both the actor and the author.  The store is filled with fun items for anyone taking a road trip in California.  We stocked up on chocolate and nuts before driving further down the road to see yet another memorial to James Dean.
This memorial is wrapped around what is now called The Tree of Heaven.  It is located in the parking lot next to the Jack Ranch Cafe in Cholame, very close to the intersection of Dean's car crash.  For many years after Dean's death, several makeshift memorials were made on both sides of Highways 41 and 46.  Oddly enough, it was a wealthy businessman from Japan who had this permanent memorial made and shipped across the Pacific Ocean to this site.  The plaque reads:

A Small Token
This monument stands as a small token of my appreciation for the people of America, from whom I have learned so much.  It celebrates a people who have over the years courageously followed the path of truth and justice, while expanding the limits of mankind with their boundless pioneering spirit.  It also stands for James Dean and other rebels who taught us the importance of having a cause. . . 

July 4, 1983
Seita Ohnishi

In a way, it best answers my questions.  Why is James Dean still talked about?  Why is he still beloved and still honored?  Because all of us can identify with the characters he portrayed.  One of the three movies he made, if not all of them, stick with us like glue.  Who hasn't experienced unrequited love?  Who hasn't been misunderstood?  Made fun of?  Who doesn't regret past mistakes?  James Dean has become a symbol for struggle, courage and irrepressible youth. 

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