A very sweet boy: the last days of James Dean

James Dean: the Last Ten Weeks on BBC Radio 2.

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“By instinct he was an internationalist,” muses the actor Robert Wagner of his contemporary James Dean, dead 60 years this month. “He had the austere good sense of the Indiana Quaker and the defence mechanisms of a turtle.” An intriguing upcoming documentary about the last weeks of Dean’s life (30 September, BBC Radio 2, 10pm) considers the friendship between the actor and the photo­grapher Sanford Roth, who worked on the set of Giant in 1955. Bonding over a love of black (rather than the more commercial silver) stills cameras, the actor would follow the well-travelled Roth around, all “talk talk talk” about Aldous Huxley and Paris, which Dean longed to visit.

This month also brings the release of a film (Anton Corbijn’s Life) about Dean’s friendship and work with the Magnum photographer Dennis Stock. So short a career, so many portraits. Which fits: Dean was more than passingly interested in photography and deeply comprehended how to grab the eye. In fact, when Roth first saw him on the set of Giant, he was posing. Roth spotted “a bespectacled cowboy toying with a rope. Somehow I felt that this must be Jimmy Dean and I moved towards him.” Dean was no less than magician-like with his hands (think of how nimble he is snatching Buzz’s knife mid-air in Rebel Without a Cause). It’s what made him a great subject for photography, always fiddling with some prop: ropes, conga drums, collars, mugs, books, cigarettes, hats, capes, recording equipment, apertures, kittens, specs, his own camera . . .

“I haven’t been anywhere, or seen anything,” he once sulked to Roth, whose written essays formed the basis of a bewitchingly dreamy radio narrative. This simple complaint made me (not for the first time) sorely miss the photos that were never to happen: Dean reading Keats on the Spanish Steps, Dean in his longed-for Paris negotiating a citron pressé, which he surely would have ordered because Dean’s keynote was not in fact his cool but his adorability, his sweetness. What other icon of rebellion could get away with tripping through a field of wild flowers wearing a pair of too-short dungarees and carrying a little straw picnic basket, as Dean did in East of Eden – dimples, giggle, chubby bottom? Make no mistake: none. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left