In honor of James Dean’s 86th birthday, let’s take a moment to appreciate the iconic actor’s at times dubious sex life. His struggle to sustain a firm place on the silver screen wasn’t without the occasional veering off the hetero path. In fact, it seems that often the quickest way to success in entertainment is to veer off the hetero path.
As with many a repressed bisexual, Dean grew up in a religious household—first with his aunt and uncle, Quakers living in Indiana, then seeking his own counsel by turning to a Methodist pastor who would serve as a large influence on his later-in-life interests, including the one that would kill him: car racing. Then there was the mama’s boy factor. The love he had for his mother, Mildred, was intensified by the fact that he was an only child, as well as her early death when he was just nine years old. In short, Dean was that rare combination of nature and nurture when it came to his sexual predilections.
After dropping out of college to pursue acting full-time on the heels of snagging a Pepsi commercial, Dean moved to L.A. “for real,” where he took a job as a parking attendant at CBS Studios. It was there he met Rogers Brackett, who though not in the film business, per se, took his experience as a radio director for an ad agency and applied it to Dean’s career—with the caveat that he stay with him in his apartment. Soon after, their relationship started to echo that of Joe Gillis’ and Norma Desmond’s in Sunset Boulevard (the co-screenwriter of which was incidentally named Charles Brackett). Brackett bought his clothes, covered restaurant tabs and essentially supported him as he tried to “make it.” Indeed, it was Brackett who would ultimately finance Dean’s move to New York City so he could study at the Actors Studio with the famed Lee Strasberg.
It was later speculated that Dean, who studied with Marlon Brando at the Actors Studio, had a brief dalliance with the macho actor as well—not necessarily out of the question considering Dean’s hero (not hetero) worship of him and Brando’s later admission that “Like a large number of men, I too have had homosexual experiences and I’m not ashamed.” Also while studying in New York, Dean grew quite “close” with his roommate, William Bast, the later confirmer of his sexual relationship to Rodgers Brackett.
Fittingly, it was Dean’s theater performance as an Arab houseboy who seduces a married repressed gay tourist for his own benefit in The Immoralist that would secure him a leading onscreen role in East of Eden. His brief film career, which concluded with Giant, stoked the legend of Hollywood gossip that goes: his co-stars, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, made a bet about who could sleep with Dean first. Actress Noreen Nash claimed Hudson won the wager. Of course he did.
James Dean would have been 86 today.