James Dean: My Life in Pictures is a graphic novel about the life of the famous iconic actor “narrated by Dean himself” as in the film from his era Sunset Boulevard. A “cradle to the grave” biography, the book doesn’t shy away from many real life escapades of one of the most mysterious and notorious figures in pop cultural history. Inspired from accredited biographies and encounters from people who knew him best, the narrative includes his many friendships, adventures and romances (homosexual and heterosexual) that Dean experienced, including his hungry rise to the top, in addition to his genuine hard work and dedication that made him one of the greatest actors in film. His importance can’t be underestimated, and the book explores the rebel power that Dean encapsulated that for the first people in history to give “youth a voice”, and inspiring the youth movement (and figures such as Elvis Presley) that changed culture forever.
apartment on the Upper West Side, and after going on a cruise with a Broadway producer, gets a role in a Broadway production titled “See the Jaguar”. Although the play isn’t a critical success (and closes just after five days), Dean is recognized for his great performance, which helps him land his second (and last) Broadway role The Immoralist. Quickly becoming known for his role as a homosexual Arab houseboy in the play, and with his newfound reputation for this (and his numerous television roles and participation at the Actor’s Studio) he is able to capture the attention of Eliza Kazan. In 1953 Kazan is looking for a young actor for the role of Cal Trask in the screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel “East of Eden” and finds Dean perfect for the role. Dean is able to quit the play he has become hostile towards, and just two weeks after the opening, he leaves the play and New York to accompany Kazan on a plane for Los Angeles and stardom.
The book is separated into three “acts” that follow in ways the standard Hollywood format, and are entitled after his three movies:
Act Three: “Giant”
Act One: “East of Eden”
With pages rendered in watercolor and some in oil paint to simulate the Technicolor world and glory he gains in Hollywood, this section describes the rapid rise and fall of the actor that became an icon for generations. Having earned the reputation and connection to become a famous actor, Dean comes to Hollywood in April 1954 to star in the new Kazan film, and by the time of his death in September 1955 became one of the greatest actors in screen history.
Rendered in sketchy pen and ink and pencil (to better create synaesthetic experience of distant memories), the first act of the narrative follows Dean’s childhood to the time he leaves UCLA and California to follow his ambitions as a young man to New York City. Born on February 8, 1931, James Dean is the only child in a Methodist/Quaker family that lives a middle class existence during the depression, from a small town in Indiana until his father moves the family for work to Santa Monica when Dean is six. Until the age of nine he is beloved by his nurturing mother who encourages his interests in the creative arts and acting, and engages him in games of “magical thinking” that help to plant the seeds for his future and ambition to be a great actor until she dies from cancer at the early age of twenty-nine. Left to be raised by a cold and distant father, who chooses instead (for financial reasons) to send Dean (along with the casket containing his dead mother) on a train from Santa Monica to Indiana to be brought up by his aunt and uncle Winslow. Once in Fairmont, Dean tries to assimilate by playing sports and participating in clubs, but never feels quite accepted and at home. He also engages his interest in motorbikes and racing, an obsession that will one day lead to his death. Of all his activities as a teen, he loves forensics and acting the most, and enjoys being a popular thespian in their community as much as an athlete, and has ambitions to move to California to live with his father and attend UCLA. His notions for experiencing a bigger cultural universe are also fueled by his intimate friendship with the cultured town pastor and his success as an actor at school and at forensics meets. As soon as he graduates from high school in 1949, Dean moves to Los Angeles to live with his father, who first influences his son to attend a community college to get his grades up and study law, but Dean quickly is able to move on his own to UCLA to study theater, and to leave the clutches of his taciturn father. While at UCLA Dean moves away from the fraternities and finds his niche in theater, becoming best friends (and roommates) with a fellow actor Bill Bast, and both work towards expanding their worlds outside of UCLA to the film and television worlds of Hollywood. Both date the same women (while flirting with homosexuality) and meet important people in the industry. Dean also takes his first serious acting classes with James Whitmore, who becomes a mentor figure influencing him to want to move to New York City to attend the Actors Studio to study “method acting” and seek jobs on the stage and television. Dean eventually stops going to college, and has relationships with gay men who can help him professionally, most importantly Rogers Brackett, a radio director working for an ad agency with many important contacts, enabling him to finally move to New York City after Dean appears in his first TV commercials and enjoys a few bit parts in movies. Act Two: “Rebel Without a Cause” Rendered in black and white ink and ink wash, to simulate the New Yorker cartoons and feelings of the moods of the urban world that was New York in the early 1950’s, this section of the book encounters Dean as he comes into himself as a man and gains the power and experience he needs to fulfill his great ambitions as an actor. When he first comes to New York he only has $150 and the contacts Brackett has given him, and he spends his early days watching his idols Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando and dreaming of his future. He meets Brackett’s friends, mostly either gay or repressed gay (and some straight) men in television and advertising, who take him under their wing, helping him to find a room in the Iroquois hotel, and helping him to obtain his first acting roles and he meets Jeanne Deacy, an agent who becomes an important ally. Dean meets actors Martin Landau, John Gilmore (who also becomes a part-time lover) and composer Leonard Rosenman who become his friends as he pursues acting jobs, landing small roles in films and television (including a stint testing bits for game shows). He also meets Elizabeth “Dizzy” Sheridan, a dancer who becomes his girlfriend and they move in together for a short time. Dean has many experiences with friends (such as Eartha Kitt) and lovers during this period that account for his artistic and intellectual coming of age, and that build his ambitions and give him the worldliness that helps his acting and also to conquer his goals. He is also always acting, and is able gain roles in the fledgling and thriving television industry. Through hard work and rehearsal he is also able to gain entry to the Actors Studio with a friend Christine White, but doesn’t last long as he has no patience for criticism, and leaves after the famous director Lee Strasburg tries to give him direction. He eventually is able to have a small
Sensing sexual tension and jealously, Kazan has him live with Dick Davalos, his costar for Eden, above a drugstore across from the studio where he is preparing his new film. As they wade through the various production details, Dean assimilates to his new surroundings, and still is unable to make a good connection and relationship with his father who still lives in the area. Kazan has him move up north to Salinas to get “into” his role for the upcoming movie, and Dean takes to his task by making friends with the locals, learning through experience how he can merge his own life into his character to play the part of Cal (serendipitously Cal Dean was the name of his grandfather). When they commence shooting, Kazan is a master manipulator who has Dean taunt Raymond Massey to get the emotions he needs for the character’s roles. Dean proves to be a brilliant actor, using the method acting techniques he has learned, along with his instinct and unrelenting drive to be great. He continues his friendships with people such as Leonard Rosenman, who has become the composer for the film, and enjoys his and his wife’s company as he did in New York. He also meets journalists and non-industry people who become his friends. Dean is able to purchase quality motorcycles and cars, which he recklessly drives throughout the studio and the surrounding areas in southern California. He makes many friends that become acolytes, and begins dating women voraciously, including Pier Angeli, who becomes the “love of his life”. Dean’s reputation grows immensely, and he soon becomes rumored to be the new successor to Brando. Dean becomes overwhelmed to a degree with his fame, and becomes more narcissistic and headstrong, also becoming more mysterious and rebelling to convention and authoritative figures, but ever immersed and dedicated to his acting and career. Finally having been moved to a dressing room off the soundstage where Eden is partially being shot to better “keep an eye on him”, when the film is finished Dean refuses to leave and only does so after being threatened by Jack Warner, the head of the studio himself. Pier’s mother, a strict Roman Catholic, hates Dean and does all in her power to thwart Dean in becoming more involved with her daughter, who threatens to marry Dean. Abruptly, after becoming pregnant, Pier marries Vic Damone which supposedly breaks Dean heart, who acts out in his sorrow. Dean recovers, however, and dates many more women, including a one-legged athlete and Ursula Andrews. Eden proves to be an incredible success, and while Dean enjoys the accolades and attention, he is also notoriously absent from premiers and has his own private way of dealing with his newfound fame. He takes to hanging out with the “the Night Watch” at Googie’s on Sunset Boulevard, his favorite diner hangout, hanging out with dark figures such as Maila Nurmi, otherwise known as Elvira, the b-movie horror film host who dresses as a Charles Addams figure (with whom he meets the local witch community), and other quirky characters such as his great friend Jack Simmons, who is also rumored to be his sometimes lover. Dean is a hopeless insomniac, and keeps late nights where he haunts the diner and has more adventures with motorcycles, racing, and friends. Nicolas Ray taps Dean to be the lead in his new movie, a labor of love based on his own life “Rebel Without a Cause” that will also star former child actress Natalie Wood, gay icon Sal Mineo, and a cast that includes Dennis Hopper among real Los Angeles teen gang members. Nick Ray is a more instinctive director that Kazan, and allows Dean to lead his own scenes in terms of direction and ideas, and gives the young actor incredible power and agency to conduct the role as he wishes. Dean, who tells people he ultimately wants to become a director, revels in this, and makes the most of his role both on camera and off. Ray proves to be another great director for Dean, and with Dean’s fire and acting talent, is able to produce an iconic film, exploiting both Mineo’s love for the star and the director’s own relationship with Wood to produce a movie with incredible emotion and feeling, becoming a movie that would essentialize the frustrations of teenage adolescent angst for generations. Dean wants badly to act in Giant, the new film that was to be directed by George Stevens (the director of Monty Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in Dean’s favorite “A Place in the Sun” among many others), and visits the offices wearing the cowboy clothes of the character Jett Rink that he wants to play in the movie. Stevens becomes convinced, and casts him along with Taylor and Rock Hudson in the movie, which begins shooting before Rebel is finished with production. Unlike Ray and Kazan, Stevens is cold and distant towards Dean, who he appreciates as an actor and a necessary evil to portray the renegade outcast character he plays in the movie. He also is of a different generation and attitude of the two other younger, hipper directors, and has no tolerance for Dean’s transgressions, which reflects towards the others in the cast, who also treat Dean with some dismay. To his
discredit, Dean is also aloof towards the other cast, being a “serious” actor from the Actors Studio in New York, and spends more time with the cowboys in Texas than he does with his costars, with the exception of Taylor, who he effectively ‘steals away” from Hudson, spending his evening with her trading notes and revealing his inner turmoil and experiences. Despite his ostracism, or perhaps because of it, Dean turns in an incredible performance that while not in keeping with the more conventional approaches of his fellow actors, becomes even more memorable for its outlandishness and felt emotions. Dean is never quite satisfied, however, especially with his performance as the aged Rink who becomes an empty, although successful man. He also has constant dreams of his mother speaking to him from beyond, and becomes obsessed with death, and sees psychoanalysts for this and also his homosexual leanings. After the famous “last supper” sequence in the movie (where the character collapses into his food, drunk and pathetic), Dean has finished his obligations to the film, and almost immediately sets out to race his new Porsche in upstate California. Despite many prescient warnings and ominous signs, and after being unable to get most any of his friends to accompany him, he drives with his mechanic in the car, with friends following in another car, upstate to get a feeling for the new vehicle before he races it. As he has always done, he drives incredibly fast, and sees an oncoming truck to late on a lonely road, which he is unable to swerve to avoid, and crashes into the truck and smashes his thin aluminum cart into smithereens, throwing the mechanic to safety but crushing his car and breaking his body into death. The nation mourns Dean’s loss, who they only know from one film, East of Eden, but its such a magnificent performance, he has already gained a popular following, and by the time the two other films have been released, James Dean becomes famous around the world, and continues to be revered in our time. He inspires Elvis Presley to become a singer and help to invent rock and roll music, he also inspires John Lennon and countless other figures of the baby boomer generation that begat the youthlead 60’s counter culture movement. He has many imitators in acting, and has become an icon of what it is to be an outspoken but sensitive youth for generations of people around the globe. Having the uncanny notion to have himself photographed as much as possible, his image has become ubiquitous in all corners of the world, and his image is as renown as much as his acting. Truly Dean has never died, as his soul was in his roles and he put his love for life the way he conducted himself through life, becoming a legend. Dean wanted to become immortal, rise above his own time and join the ranks of the Olympus of great heroes. His life reads like a model for the Joseph Campbell “Heroes Journey”, and he has become the great being that he always strove for, living on in immortality and changing the future of our planet through his greatness and stature. He lives on in our memory, in his image, and his films, and he is an icon for youth and America, and he has proceeded to a deeper level of being than he did in his mortal life.