James Dean: Artist and Man

Tenn in Conversation
New Orleans

There were several similarities between Marilyn [Monroe] and Jimmy [Dean], chief among them being their reliance on sexual submission or conquest to prove their worthiness. They were both remarkably sweet people--far too servile for their own good, surrounded by supplicants and leeches. Both felt insufficiently educated, and so both were ostentatious readers; both were always looking for teachers and mentors and guides and fathers. I found this terribly sweet even as I found it exhausting and sad. I was sad that they could not see or enjoy the obvious effects and presence of their talents and their charms--and this extended beyond their skins and their organs, which they gave away far too readily.

James Dean and Julie Harris in a promotional shot for East of Eden (1955).

Julie Harris treated Jimmy as everyone should have treated him: As an artist and as a man. Julie was resistant to his considerable charms and attributes, which he flaunted. Julie accepted--fulsomely and lovingly--his talent, and he flourished when her eyes were upon him, but those eyes of hers were needed in many places and by many people, and he was soon searching for acceptance in other, darker corners.

Photograph by Richard C. Miller

In retrospect everything happened far too quickly for Jimmy, but he didn't see it that way. He craved speed and excitement and drama and rapid affirmation. He was ravenous. I don't know how this would have aged, or how he would have aged. He was very Keatsian in that regard--he seemed to burn and live and love with a white-hot fever.

The cults arose for Marilyn and Jimmy immediately, and these two people now exist--frozen and tragic and beautiful--in an eternal wet dream of the imagination. That's okay. They're idols and we need idols. But we shouldn't forget the talent and the work--No one achieves what they did by being lazy or unaware of where the lights, the drama, the action happens to be sitting.

We should honor them with more than our glands.

©2013 by James Grissom


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