He is certainly the youngest. Even today we don't really know if the moody, rebellious actor with whom so many disaffected, misunderstood, sexually confused teenagers around the world of the 1950s identified so closely was really gay. He could have been bisexual. Might he even have been straight? Yet James Dean is now regarded as one of the great gay icons of all time. In his first two films, "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without A Cause", the angst-ridden, complex, outcast misfits he played sprang out from the screen and gripped audiences in a way no other young actor had achieved.
Dean was just a farm boy from indiana who left home taking the bus to New York at 18. After a stint as a TV actor, he moved to Los Angeles and was soon spotted as a young man destined for stardom. Elia Kazan, the director of "East of Eden", claimed he was "pure gold on screen." During his short career, Dean's name was linked to a number of actresses, notably Pier Angeli who would write lovingly of her "affair" with "Jimmie" before she committed suicide at the age of 39. At the time, few had reason not to believe her story. Doubts only began to appear some decades later when it was realised how strictly the Hollywood studio system controlled the public images of their stars. If it could keep the openly gay life of matinee idol Rock Hudson secret for decades, partly through sham affairs and partly by insisting he was working too hard, it's surely easy to believe it would have little difficulty shaping a wholesome image for its rebellious younger star.
Could he have been gay? When you look at these screen tests for "Rebel Without A Cause" where he and the younger mid-teen, cherubic-faced Sal Mineo are together, many in the gay community consider these could definitely be two gay young lovers, the more so as Mineo eventually came out as bisexual (in those days as good as saying he was gay). Mineo was later murdered outside his home at age 37. Investigating his death detectives discovered that his home was covered in pictures of nude men.
Elia Kazan noted in his autobiography that Dean could not possibly have had successful relationships with girls. After spending several months in close proximity to Dean, surely he would be more likely to know than some of the early biographers who were no doubt paid to tow the studio line?
Early in 2017 the latest of a whole series of books that has placed ever more lurid so-called facts into the public domain was published. Written by a couple commonly called The Tabloid Kings for their trashy biographies of the rich and famous, in "James Dean: Tomorrow Never Comes" they allege an almost nightly series of sexual relationships with a host of well-known names, including Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson - and even the closet gay director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover! Even if there were a grain of truth in the others, it stretches belief to suggest that Dean and Hudson ever had sex. Hudson, his co-star in "Giant", loathed Dean. He was later to say, "he was hard to be around. Full of contempt."
Inevitably, Dean's sexual escapades have been embellished as the years have passed and the growing worldwide gay community yearns for more gay icons. Who better than the fiery rebel James Dean whose good looks smoulder so passionately on the screen? Obviously much of what has been written is drivel; but as they say, can there be smoke without fire?
Dean only starred in three feature films. On the basis of these alone, he deserves his place in the pantheon of great movie stars. Yet it was his untimely death at the age of just 24 that has resulted in his memory living on as more of a cult hero and icon. Five weeks before "East of Eden" opened and just after "Giant" had wrapped, he was driving his Porsche 550 Spyder in California when it skidded into another car. He was dead within minutes.
That untimely death certainly added to his legendary status, especially amongst millions of grieving teenagers - of whom a good proportion were no doubt themselves gay and, these being the 1950s, still in the closet. Of his sexuality, Dean himself went as far as to say, "No, I am not a homosexual," adding almost conspiratorially, "But I'm also not going to go through life with one hand tied behind my back." In the early 1950s and with studio executives breathing down his neck, that was I suspect as much as he could possibly say. Some have suggested that like many hot-blooded young men he must have enjoyed experimenting with sex. Not so the feminist author Germaine Greer who wrote in 2005, "Looking back over half a century . . . the one thing that now seems obvious is that the boy was as queer as a coot."
Whatever the truth, Gay Times' Readers' Awards had no hesitation citing him as "the greatest male gay icon of all time."
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