Jack Dann’s new book, The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean, begins a matter of days before the actor’s fatal car crash on that frosty September morning in 1955. Instead of mangling his Porsche and instantly creating legend, in Dann’s alternate reality, Dean escapes serious harm because of an apparent second chance afforded him by the ghost of his dead mother. It’s a chance, he believes, to live a better life and be a better man. What begins as an exciting premise, though, quickly dissolves into a bizarre mess of ill-conceived ideas and inconsistencies that twists the life of Hollywood biggest and most enduring icon into a preposterous joke. Apparently the answer to the big question of what would have happened had James Dean survived the crash is that he would have become a savvy film producer and a state governor, while having Paul Newman’s film career and a lot of sex with Marilyn Monroe.
Dann’s major failing here is that he chooses not to tell the story of James Dean the deeply flawed and complex Young Man, but rather James Dean the already created and well-established Legend. Much of Dann’s rearranging of history relies on the reader having a good knowledge of Dean lore and the Hollywood of the 1950s. It means little otherwise for Dean’s list of credits following his explosive turn in Rebel Without a Cause, to include Hud, The Hustler, The Left-Handed Gun, Sweet Bird of Youth and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or for the actor to relish his co-starring role with Elvis Presley and girlfriend Pier Angeli in The Manchurian Candidate. Then again, maybe Dann is relying on readers not knowing all that much Dean lore, which would help explain the lack of depth in his characterization of the actor.
What made James Dean who he was? What made him so unrelenting in artistic pursuits? To hear Dann tell it, Dean was a wannabe who made good, who lucked out with the success of Rebel. Truth is, Dean was a committed theater performer who struggled for years to perfect his acting style, thriving on the opportunities afforded him by directors like Nicholas Ray that allowed him to better himself and improve his craft. Dann’s version of Dean never once sets foot on a film set. Instead, he skulks around Hollywood, grabbing the boobs of young starlets and sleeping with Marilyn whenever he gets the chance, while telling her he understands how poor and sad life is for the two of them.
None of these great actors Dann reinvents, come to think of it, ever do any acting. Dann is more interested in the behind-the-scenes gossip, speculating as to Bobby Kennedy’s participation in Marilyn’s death, as well as the brutish behavior of Monroe’s partners Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio. Pretty much everyone on Dann’s hit list is famous, and nary a single person flittering in and out of Dean’s new life isn’t a big name. It’s this silly notion that famous people only ever hang around with famous people (or the wives and mothers of famous people) that calls Dann’s credibility into question with his story, especially when scenes occur such as DiMaggio interrupting Dean and Monroe having a dinner date with Frank Sinatra by his side. DiMaggio and Dean go at it and Miss Monroe ends up in tears, but Frank says nothing, apparently there only for name recognition. Like Joe DiMaggio ever spied on Marilyn with a nobody!
As if the name-dropping wasn’t bad enough, Dean not only hangs out with all these people, but he seems to consistently show up Forrest Gump-style at pivotal moments in their lives. He’s there when Marilyn’s dead body is wheeled from her house on a gurney; he’s present at the shooting death of Pat Brown; he’s visiting with Bobby and Ethel when they find out Ted Kennedy has been rushed to hospital. Dean’s seemingly unassuming existence prior to his death fires up like a tornado, with him jet-setting to various political events and rallies, while managing his joint careers as an actor and a producer. He finds time, too, in the 13-year period in which Dann’s book takes place, to head off on a mountain-climbing expedition with Bobby Kennedy (“You’re on belay!” is a phrase I never though I’d read associated with James Dean), to mourn the deaths of his great loves Marilyn and Pier, to save the life an activist on Black Sunday, and marry a snotty journalist. He basically goes from lowly artiste to super hero — his mum’s message must have had some power. Incidentally, it’s at Dean’s wedding that Paul Newman apparently spends the occasion scowling at him — one wonders why Newman feels any ill-will towards Dean at all, it’s not like he could know all those parts were meant for him.
Ugh. It’s all just too silly. Dann seems so obsessed with proving just how savvy a film and political historian he is that he forgets to actually give James Dean any heart. Dean is apparently obsessively in love with Marilyn and Pier yet he cheats on the both of them with each other and with other people, dragging behind him a string of lies. For some reason, too, everyone is Dann’s story is overtly vulgar, dropping “fuck” and “cunt” into everyday conversation without reservation.
Here’s a snippet of a conversation, for example, between Bobby Kennedy and James:
“You fucked Pier, didn’t you, Bobby?” Jimmy said.
“What, You dumb, stupid bastard, of course I didn’t.”
“No, of course,” Jimmy said sarcastically, “you would never fuck a friend’s wife.”
“Well, I didn’t fuck your wife,” Bobby said, his ragged breath visible in the cold air. “Pier used to call me just to talk,
that’s all, and it was always about you.”
“About me? Fuck you, Bobby.”
And on and on. Dann leaves logic on the doorstep (James Dean as a governor using Be a Rebel With a Cause as his campaign slogan? Come on!), instead constructing his story around who fucked who, who wanted to fuck who and who should have fucked who among the glitter and glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Dean’s bisexuality is glossed over, as is his penchant for self-mutilation. Dann’s Dean is a ruthless moneymaker who constantly puts down his contemporaries (he hates Brando as well as Newman, and refers to Frank Sinatra as “Old Glass Jaw”), who spends his time making movie deals and lying to the women his says he loves. He’s crude, callous and unforgiving, and never once shows signs of being a passionate young artist. Dann’s Dean purports to wish to make a better life for himself following his crash, but instead does little else but structure his hate-fuelled life around his own narcissistic desires.