James Dean: Rebel Life by John Howlett

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James Dean: Rebel Life by John Howlett

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: James Dean was the ultimate 'live fast, die young' character of the 1950s, a star of three classic pictures of the age yet dying at the age of only twenty-four. He only After reading it, one cannot but wonder how he might have developed if only he had had another thirty years or so. One might make comparisons, not just with Dylan but with other young American names of the age who died very young, not least the likes of Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: June 2016
Publisher: Plexus
ISBN: 978-0859655347

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James Dean was in a sense to the 1950s what Sid Vicious was to the 1970s – the ultimate 'live fast, die young' character, although as the star of three classic movies of the era he achieved rather more in his short life than the hapless punk icon ever did in his.

Born in 1931 in Marion, Indiana, he was always close to his mother, said to be the only person genuinely capable of understanding him. Her death from cancer when he was only aged eight hit him hard. He was sent to live with an uncle and aunt in their Quaker household. During adolescence he had a close relationship with a local Methodist pastor, the Rev James De Weerd, who helped to foster in the growing lad such interests as acting and car racing, both of which would be the great passions of his life, but who also may or may not have had a sexually abusive relationship with him. A popular, well-performing student at school, he seemed destined for a bright future.

As we know, it was cut short when he was only twenty-four, having starred in what would become three of the iconic pictures of the age – East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Howlett's book has researched his early life and those last sixteen months of acting in painstaking detail, accompanied by a wealth of pictures integrated within the text. He has had access to some invaluable archive material, including letters and other documents dealing with the original casting and the making of his films, as well as to interviews with actors, lovers and girlfriends who knew and worked with him in New York and Hollywood. In his summary he analyses Dean's rebellious spirit – an aggressive and uncompromising one, he concludes, but inarticulate beyond a general anger, as directionless as the violence of a street delinquent. He makes comparisons with the more specific rebellion of Bob Dylan a decade later, though it is open to question as to how valid are the comparisons that can be made between a young film actor who apparently felt doomed throughout most of his short existence, and a gifted yet calculating creative artist and musician who probably saw in an initially rebellious attitude the pathway to a long-lasting and very successful career.

The book is generously illustrated with black and white pictures integrated throughout within the text. It can be argued that if it has a fault, it is a little short in places on biographical and personal detail – but when the subject is such a short life, this is understandable. I would also suggest that the unusually small font does make for a less than easy read throughout. Howlett can certainly be applauded for his comprehensive reconstruction of Dean's professional career. After finishing it, one cannot but wonder how he might have developed if only he had had another thirty years or so. One might make comparisons, not just with Dylan but with other young American names of the age who died very young, not least the likes of Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly.

Other reading which may well also appeal includes the story of another flawed genius in the making who died young, Touching From A Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division by Deborah Curtis; or for a more general read on cinema history, In Glorious Technicolor: A Century of Film and How it has Shaped Us by Francine Stock.

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Buy James Dean: Rebel Life by John Howlett at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy James Dean: Rebel Life by John Howlett at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy James Dean: Rebel Life by John Howlett at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy James Dean: Rebel Life by John Howlett at Amazon.com.

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