What, you ask? Yet more on James Dean?  (If you didn’t recognize Dean’s pal above, it’s fellow 50s heartthrob Tab Hunter).

Ok, we admit it.  We’ve written a lot about Dean over the years, in part a reflection of the still continuing discussion among classic movie fans of just how good an actor he really was — or wasn’t.

A big help in sorting this out is the publication of a superb new book, The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best (Chicago Review Press), crisply edited by Peter L. Winkler. Although the title suggests a Dean hagiography this telling book is anything but.  On both personal and professional levels it authoritatively and honestly covers it all.

The book is a must read for anyone interested in Dean and his still considerable promotional legacy. After all, there are still theatrical retrospectives of Dean movies  — director Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause with Natalie Wood (both in 1955) and Stevens’ Giant, released after the actor’s death.

Not all of these movies are great, with the first and the third having proved more durable than Rebel, in which, it can be argued, Dean was far too old for his alienated high schooler part, and his acting was way over the top. Debate all this as you will, but to understand the Hollywood wunderkind that Dean was in the Fifties, The Real James Dean is essential reading.

It nicely balances primary source material written by various people — from Dean’s father (mystified by his own son) and his high school dramatics teacher to big name directors, costars, trade journalists, gossip columnists, friends (not a ton of those) and lovers.

These somewhat surprisingly include: biographer William Bast, actor John Gilmore and ad man Rogers Brackett, who is credited as Dean’s “salvation” when his early career hit a low point in 1951. The fact that Dean flourished for however short a period is materially due to his liaisons with these men, especially Brackett.

There’s a gripping chapter late in the book describing in detail Dean’s final day — Sept. 30, 1955 — and the auto accident that claimed his life at age 24. Editor Peter Winkler, as he does throughout The Real James Dean, keeps the contribution on a short factual lease, usefully correcting when necessary the more than occasional memory lapse.  No puffery is allowed here.

The Real James Dean is the real deal.  It’s not all that easy to understand the hold Dean still has on the American public without reading it.  (Incidentally, we’ll soon be assessing the career of Tab Hunter, the Fifties heartthrob whose appeal was worlds away from Dean’s. A recent documentary, Tab Hunter Confidential, tells his story perceptively. Stay tuned.)

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