Having released just three major films before he was tragically killed in a car accident in 1955, James Dean was able to leave an indelible mark on history. He was nominated for two Academy Awards following his death (the first Oscar nominations to be awarded for Best Actor posthumously), and he defined a generation of youth with his portrayals of angst and anguish.
Adding to the fascination with Dean’s legend are stories of his same-sex love affairs. The various accounts claim Dean was either gay or bisexual. Dean’s close friend, William Bast, revealed he and Dean “experimented,” while Dean’s relationship with influential radio producer Rogers Brackett has been used as an example of how the young actor may have slept with gay men to further his career. In his Marlon Brando biography, writer Darwin Porter asserted that Dean and Brando had a tumultuous romantic relationship that spanned years. Hollywood players of the time, like screenwriter Gavin Lambert and Rebel Without A Cause Director Nicholas Ray, have described James Dean as gay. Biographer Val Holley put it thusly: “There's been quite an evolution in the thinking since Dean's death in 1955, moving from ‘James Dean was straight’ to ‘Dean had sex with men but only to advance his career’ to ‘Dean had sex with women but only to advance his career.’”
We may never know for certain if Dean identified as gay, straight, bisexual, but, regardless, what he’s come to represent still resonates with many LGBT audiences. His most well-known roles are that of outsiders, non-comformists and misunderstood youth. His powerful performances redefined masculinity, showcasing how a tough guy could be so open with his emotions. His sense of style and good looks also didn’t hurt his standing with the gay community (and helped establish him as a butch lesbian icon as well).
See some of our favorite James Dean clips, AFTER THE JUMP …
Before he was a Hollywood leading man, Dean had his first professional acting job in a Pepsi commercial.
His first starring role was in East of Eden, playing Cal Trask. Much of the film was improvised, including the sobbing embrace in the clip above.
Rebel Without A Cause is certainly Dean’s most iconic performance, but it’s also an important film for the LGBT community. The relationship between Plato (played by gay actor Sal Mineo) and Jim Stark (Dean) has been called one of the “first in a mainstream film to depict homosexual desire,” and it’s just as central to the film as Jim’s relationship with Judy (Natalie Wood). The romantic undercurrent between Sal and Jim was purposeful, with Dean having instructed Mineo to “Look at me the way I look at Natalie.”
Dean’s final film was a sprawling Western, Giant. Allegedly, his co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson had a wager who could sleep with him first. According to another actress on Giant, Noreen Nash, Hudson won the bet just days into filming.
Most films about James Dean (including the made-for-TV one starring James Franco) gloss over Dean’s same-sex relationships or ignore them completely. One notable exception is Matthew Mishory’s Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean. Not a traditional biopic, the steamy film portrays a young, pre-fame Dean, and fully explores his sexuality. Mishory described it to Out Magazine: “What I like about it is — unlike many films — there’s no hand-wringing about sex or sexuality in this movie. There’s no gay angst — in fact, there’s no sexual angst whatsoever. It’s a movie where the sex is actually sexy.”
What is your favorite James Dean performance?