In Truman Capote’s shrewd but not malicious profile of Marlon Brando, taken and written in 1957, during the star’s filming of Sayonara, he wrote:
James Dean, the young motion-picture actor killed in a car accident in 1955, was promoted throughout his phosphorescent career as the All-American “mixed-up kid,” the symbol of misunderstood hot-rodding youth with a switch-blade approach to life’s little problems. When he died, an expensive film in which he had starred, Giant, had yet to be released, and the picture’s press agents, seeking to offset any ill effects that Dean’s demise might have had on the commercial prospects of their product, succeeded by “glamorising” the tragedy, and, in ironic consequence, created a Dean legend of rather necrophilic appeal. Though Brando was seven years older than Dean, and professionally more secure, the two actors came to be associated in the collective movie-fan mind. Many critics reviewing Dean’s first film, East of Eden, remarked on the well-nigh plagiaristic resemblance between his acting mannerisms and Brando’s. Off-screen, too, Dean appeared to be practicing the sincerest form of flattery; like Brando, he tore around on motorcycles, played bongo drums, dressed the role of rowdy, spouted an intellectual rigmarole, cultivated a cranky, colourful newspaper personality that mingled, to a skilfully potent degree, plain bad boy and sensitive sphinx.
According to Brando, Dean had an “idée fixe” about him. “Whatever I did he did.”
If this is an accurate telling of a relationship, produced by and for the Hollywood star system (under the guise of being for another culture, that of the “regular” person), then it has been wiped out in the decades since with a new narrative. And yet, whatever it may be, both figures are valuable. They both still serve a purpose, some elements strengthened and yet some have waned. But both of them were extraordinarily gentle, passionate men, and that quality, almost above all, remains forefront in their images. And here’s the most important thing: both men read books, and both men had cats.