Like James Dean, I grew up in a small town in Indiana. And, like James Dean, I left that small Indiana town as soon as I could. He got out young; I got out older. We both dreamed of becoming famous. He made it; I didn't. I never starred on Broadway, acted on television or made films. But he never made it past age 24.
Maybe being raised in Indiana made me take James Dean for granted. His image was so pervasive and his legend so available, I didn't pay much attention. And while this weekend's tribute at the Starz FilmCenter, Remembering James Dean: 50 Years Later -- screenings of new 35mm prints of his three feature films, presented in memory of his death on September 30, 1955 -- could have given me new appreciation for the actor, I already had my eyes opened during a recent pilgrimage back to my home state. It was there that I rediscovered Dean, and found a kinship.
I hadn't been back to Hoosierville in eight years, and I thought maybe I should see my elderly mother before I lost the chance. My family and I have never been close. In an attempt at coming out on the phone a few years ago, I mumbled a vague reference to my sexuality, and in that brand of denial peculiar to the heartland, my mother met my announcement with a burst of laughter. It was never spoken of again.
So for this trip, I got a hotel room and a rental car, commandeering my best friend (and ex-girlfriend) as my traveling companion for moral support. On the drive from our Indianapolis hotel to my family's rural home about 200 miles north, we made a pit stop at the James Dean Gallery in Marion, Indiana. I'd been doing some research on Dean's life and was intrigued to find him not quite the heterosexual stud Hollywood positioned him to be. Several sources quote him as saying, "Well, I'm certainly not going through life with one hand tied behind my back" when asked if he was gay. He had documented relationships with influential gay men in Hollywood, including Rogers Brackett, a radio-ad exec, and actor Jack Simmons. He avoided military service by registering as "homosexual."
Of course, we'll never know if Dean was gay, bisexual or questioning. However, the 1950s were not ideal years for any left-of-straight person, and actors were no exception. Film studios directed stars' lives as vigilantly as they did their work, forcing them into sham romances, and even marriages, to keep up appearances.
The gallery, plunked down between a truck stop and a cornfield, is an impressive 7,400-square-foot, art-deco-style building that houses the world's largest collection of James Dean memorabilia -- everything from run-of-the-mill buttons, posters and magazines to extraordinary film costumes and original artwork done by the actor. Gallery owner David Loehr, acknowledging Dean's iconic status, said that his three movies "were good films. You look at a lot of fifty-year-old films, and they seem very corny and dated, laughable. His are still strong, and they still hold up. And I think a lot of it is in his looks and his charisma. You look at fashion magazines today, and the models all look like him. Whether he was ahead of his time or he created the look, I don't know."
In the end, my foreboding about a fire-and-brimstone clash with my family was a false alarm. They gave me, and my friend, a warm reception. We never disclosed her ex-girlfriend status to them, and they never asked.
On the way back to our hotel, I pondered my homecoming and James Dean. Would his family have been as hospitable if he'd visited with a boyfriend? Would his fans have turned their backs if he'd come out as queer? I thought about what we had in common and what we didn't. Silently, I wished him a belated welcome into my tribe -- and realized why so many rebels find a giant in him.