Sixty years ago this month — Sept. 30 to be exact — James Dean was killed in a car crash on his way to race his Porsche 550 Spyder, speeding into immortality.
Like Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando — the other two members of the not-so- holy trinity of ’50s rebellion — Dean helped usher in a new kind of men’s style and, thus, a new kind of man. Oh, sure, they could don a tux and clean up real good when they had to. But gone for the most part were the suits and ties and in their stead was the wardrobe of resistance — bomber and motorcycle jackets, windbreakers and Ts, jeans and khakis, boots and attitude.
Such nonconformity is not without its conformity just as casualness requires a great deal of study. But cool is not the absence of effort. It’s the ability to make effort seem effortless — what the Renaissance Italians called sprezzatura.
Dean, by all accounts, cared passionately — about motorcycles and car racing, acting and even what people thought of him.
“Jimmy was so adoring (of Brando) that he seemed shrunken and twisted in misery,” observed Elia Kazan, who directed Dean in his smash screen debut (“East of Eden”) and Brando to his first Oscar (for “On the Waterfront”).
Onscreen in only three roles — his theater and TV career in Manhattan was more varied — Dean expressed the same youthful, angst-ridden yearning to reach out and connect.
But in front of a still camera, he was the epitome of cool, beckoning us to reach out to him. This was never truer than in the Dennis Stock photographs that are the subject of a new Thames & Hudson book ($45, 144 pages, 125 black-and-white photographs) due out in October. Stock, a member of Magnum Photos, was slightly older than the 24-year-old Dean when he got an assignment from Life magazine in 1955 to photograph the rising star. (That experience is the subject of “Life,” a film starring Robert Pattinson as Stock and Dane DeHaan as Dean that will have its American release this fall.)
Stock captured Dean “American Gothic”-style down on his family’s Indiana farm, on the set in Hollywood and, perhaps most memorably, wandering the concrete canyons of Manhattan alone, hands thrust deeply into his pockets, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, his blond pompadour tousled.
Sometimes, his coat collar was turned up against the inclement indifference of the city, as in one iconic photograph. Sometimes, the coat was parted like a curtain to reveal a Beat staple, the turtleneck. Sometimes, it was the shifting, glass-framed eyes and stubble that got your attention. Whatever it was, it was magic.
Until that moment when Dean’s Porsche, with mechanic Rolf Würtherich in the passenger’s seat, collided with Donald Turnupseed’s Ford Tudor at the intersection of California Routes 466 (now State Route 46) and 41.
“That guy’s gotta see us,” was among the last words Dean spoke before the crash that killed him instantly.
Turnupseed apparently never did.
Thanks in part to Stock’s photos, we still do.