James Dean: The Little Prince

A year ago I bought this biography from a university book fair. It was the last day of the week-long event so all of the reduced books were half off, about one or two bucks. It was like a bibliophile’s dream come true and everyone—students, professors, the whole cardigan-wearing lit crowd– was browsing with such intense concentration you could hear a pin drop. Quickly, I scurried over to the only table left unintended and started scouring.

I ended up getting a book on impressionist paintings, one on Monet, a thick Hemingway biography, Letters to Africa, The Sea Wolf, Doctor Faustus (which I lost immediately) some poetry, and somewhere in between my happy book-hunting delirium, snagged this from a cardboard box labeled simply as FILM in black Sharpie.

I’ve never been a hardcore James Dean fan. I’ve seen East of Eden and a bit of Rebel Without A Cause, (never managed to find the time to watch Giant), but I never found the whole slouchy, sullen, pouty act attractive. Sure he seemed tortured, but, to quote the title of his second film, it didn’t seem like he had a cause, a good reason to act this way.

That all changed when I read Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean by Paul Alexander, a writer who used to write for TIME magazine. It seems like Alexander is deeply interested in the lives of angst-ridden celebrities (he has also penned a piece on Sylvia Plath), but this novel not only explores Dean’s short-lived movie career, but also his complicated relationship with his largely absent father, the difficulties of making it in Hollywood, and how he was devoted to his craft in the manic, single-minded way reserved for Method actors.

“For God’s sake, my name isn’t Marlon. It’s STANLEY.”

We all know how it ended (the smashed Porsche Spyder 550, the broken neck), and what came after (the fanatical outpour of condolences around the world, the fan clubs which still exist today), but not a lot of us know about James Dean when he was still figuring things out, when he hadn’t made it to the silver screen, when he was still affectionately called “Jimmy” and wore thick glasses (which totally explains the excessive squinting that has become the COOL thing to do) or his obsession with the Little Prince.

This French tale about a boy in love with a rose whose proud nature forces him to leave his home to explore the wide, wide world has obvious parallels to Dean’s relationship with his own father, but needless to say, without this personal conflict Dean wouldn’t have had the first-hand experiences necessary to channel dark, realistic portrayals of repressed and complicated young men.

His movie career was so short that the way he died, so suddenly and dramatically, usually overshadows his film credits, but this book carefully details the struggles he had as a young actor, his long list of failed romantic relationships, and highlights all of those little quirks and habits, which makes him James Dean.

[Cover photo via ohsoglassy]

[Marlon Brando photo via wildsound.ca]

[James Dean photo via bertandmorty.com]

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