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DEAN MACHINE : HOW THREE STARRING ROLES, EARLY DEATH TURNED ACTOR INTO AN ICON.

Byline: Ted Anthony Associated Press

They still go for it in high school. They try real hard - try to look as if they're not trying at all. They lean against lockers and hang out in shopping malls, jeans pegged, faces clouded with brooding looks, waiting for girls to come along. And the girls do.

This is cool - an enduring, modern, youthful, collective-unconscious cool embodied in the attractiveness of alienation, the magnetism of vulnerability, the simmering sensuality of self-imposed isolation.

Much of today's cool came from one man - one moody boy, really: James Dean.

He was a man encumbered with the world's weight and an overabundance of sex appeal, a poster boy for the tortured netherworld between child and adult. Eyes deep, hair tousled, body brimming with emotion so obvious, yet so hidden.

That was James Dean: haunted antihero, sensitive male of a pre-sensitive age. Tough when provoked, tender when encouraged. Forever adolescent - be it Jim Stark of ``Rebel Without a Cause,'' Cal Trask of ``East of Eden'' or even Jett Rink of ``Giant,'' who was allowed to age but not grow into a man.

Each character was running from something - each desperate to take family, world, friend, loves, and pick them all apart with conflict and heartache, then somehow reassemble them into some newly chiseled sense of belonging.

Now, 41 years after Dean died at the age of 24 in a car crash, ``Giant,'' for which he received a posthumous Academy Award nomination, is being rereleased to a world filled with people who may never have seen his movies but undoubtedly know of the actor who many believe never really knew himself.

``I gotta know who I am,'' Dean's Cal Trask says. ``I gotta know what I'm like.'' Today he is - like all good, prematurely deceased icons from JFK to Marilyn to Morrison to Hendrix to Lennon to Elvis to Cobain - whatever his public wants.

Dean remains fresh despite a limited oeuvre of bit parts, stage appearances, scattered television shows and, of course, three memorable starring roles in movies he made before death came at a rural California intersection.

Why does he endure? In a word: cool. The iconography of modern cool - white cool, at least - starts, really, with James Dean.

Oh, there was cool before him, but it was different - John Wayne's hold-on-there-pilgrim cowboy and soldier; Humphrey Bogart's haunted, cynical loner; Cary Grant's suave bachelor. Yet when we summon archetypal male cool today, we think this: young, remote, pained, handsome. Blue jeans, T-shirt, jacket, cigarette, dares and oneupmanship.

``He was everything the 1950s wanted him to be: Davy Crockett, Holden Caulfield, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gen. Eisenhower, with a little Oscar Wilde and Jesus Christ thrown in,'' Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote this month in Out, a gay magazine. He calls Dean ``the gay man's Mona Lisa.''

It was no accident that this image surfaced after World War II. People were returning from battle and having families, and the beginning of the baby boom injected adolescence into the culture like never before - a process that continues unabated today.

Dean tapped into this, probably very consciously; many have said he crafted his public persona as painstakingly as his roles.

``It is as if he knew,'' Martin wrote, ``that style is one of the few principles that abide.''

Abide the Dean image did, to the point of parody. Consider the Fonz. And early Travolta, who parodied Dean-ness into something almost unrecognizable with Vinnie Barbarino, then pulled back some for a Sha-Na-Na-esque interpretation as Danny Zuko in ``Grease.'' Even today, echoes of James Dean resonate in Luke Perry's sulky Dylan McKay character of ``Beverly Hills, 90210,'' Keanu Reeves' distant Gen-X heroes, maybe even some of Nicolas Cage's isolated leading men.

Did Dean's youth cool last because it was the first? Unlikely. You can make the argument that Marlon Brando invented this brand of cool. His definitive cool role, ``On the Waterfront,'' on the heels of ``A Streetcar Named Desire'' and the motorcycle anthem ``The Wild One,'' came out a year before Dean's first movie, ``East of Eden.'' Some criticized Dean then, saying he emulated Brando's style to the point of outright imitation.

This assertion, though, fails on two accounts. First, Brando, more the mumbling rebel, lacked the raw sensitivity and vulnerability that Dean most certainly had.

Second, Dean lived fast, died young, left a good-looking corpse. Brando lived fast, grew old and became a corpulent parody of himself, replacing the memory of strapping youth with an image far less appealing.

``Brando lived too long,'' says Steven Alford, a film critic and liberal arts professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

``It's like Hendrix,'' Alford says. ``He was going to start playing with Miles Davis when he died. Following his own interests would have marginalized him. And had Janis Joplin lived, she would have been a fat sloppy drunk on stage.

``I'm sure James Dean would have done the same thing. Or perhaps he would have had some kind of trajectory like Nick Nolte - the young, handsome athletic type who is not taken seriously but does more intriguing roles as he ages but still becomes a sort of middle-rank actor.''

But he didn't. And the work he left behind shows a surprising attempt to control not only the emotion of his films but their actual scenery. He crouched atop trains, frolicked in bean fields and climbed trellises in ``East of Eden''; raced ``chickie runs'' and turned an empty mansion into a playground in ``Rebel Without a Cause''; obsessively paced his land and defiantly soaked up a powerful thunderstorm in ``Giant.''

It was as if maybe, just maybe, he could ignore his tumultuous emotional landscape by controlling the physical one. But it never worked, of course.

Even in ``Giant,'' the epic film for the epic youth, he remained a boy. They put gray in his hair, thinned it, put a mustache on him and made him 50. But the rich, powerful and studiously cool oil tycoon still ended up a drunk, crying, vulnerable boy at what should have been his greatest moment.

``In his portrayal of Jett Rink, Jimmy managed to incorporate his essential persona: the outsider trying to live in a society that does not want him even when he mimics its behavior,'' David Dalton wrote in his 1974 book ``James Dean: The Mutant King.''

Above even acceptance, though, the Dean spirit wanted love. In ``East of Eden,'' Abra (Julie Harris) tells Adam Trask (Raymond Massey), the father who withholds craved affection from Cal Trask (Dean): ``You have to give him some sign that you love him or else he'll never be a man.''

James Dean - the James Dean we remember, whether that's the real one or not - died before receiving that love. The public Dean persona died haunted, never belonging, never finding the acceptance he so wanted - and that failure created the isolation necessary for calculated cool.

He careened across the proscenium as he did through life - pushing, pulling, climbing, running and pouting his way to iconhood. He died before he could undermine himself, and in his death tricked us into believing that time can stop and myth can endure, frozen in memory's amber.

Two people, James the Cool and Jimmy the Vulnerable, both taken from the world too soon by the as-yet unexpressed rock 'n' roll mantra of the youth culture they helped father: better to burn out than to fade away.

Death, it turned out, was one ingenious PR move for James Dean. It created the lasting, empty-vessel idol of misguided adolescence that was - and remains - his greatest continuing performance.

Three films of cool SOURCE: Associated Press

James Dean starred in only three films in his brief career. But each made an impact, and each endured:

``East of Eden'' (1955): Dean plays Cal Trask, the troubled son of Adam Trask and brother of the polished Aron Trask in this adaptation of John Steinbeck's biblical allegory about a boy trying desperately to win his father's love. This was Dean's debut to the world, and he played it with flair - slurring his words, skulking around, giving life to the troubled-youth persona.

``Rebel Without a Cause'' (1955): A day in the life of Jim Stark, tortured youth starting at a new school and trying to make new friends - including introverted loner Plato (Sal Mineo) and misguided teen-age girl Judy (Natalie Wood). This film, more than anything, established Dean's rebellious image.

``Giant'' (1956): Released after Dean's death, this epic about two generations of a Texas family cast Dean as interloping outsider Jett Rink, a brooding ranch hand who falls for the lady of the ranch (Elizabeth Taylor) and clashes with her husband (Rock Hudson) before striking oil on his small parcel of land and becoming rich but never really happy.

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos, Box

Photo: (1) Before he died in a car crash at age 24, James Dean gave his final performance in the epic film ``Giant,'' based on Edna Ferber's novel, and co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.

(2) Dean's first starring role was opposite Julie Harris in ``East of Eden.''

Box: Three films of cool (See Text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 1, 1996
Words:1523
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