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When James Dean Was Too Queer for Disney
A documentary producer alleged the House of Mouse refused to be the first to mention Dean's sexuality--decades after it was common knowledge.
This week, a rare film archive uploaded a long-forgotten 1995 Disney Channel documentary, James Dean: A Portrait, a hagiographic biography of Dean produced by Gary Legon from a script by Legon and Dean biographer David Dalton, narrated by Rip Torn. The documentary, which aired on the fortieth anniversary of Dean’s death, is no great shakes—it’s almost uncomfortably worshipful, with some rather striking omissions and fabrications to suit the heroic narrative Legon wanted to create. But what struck me was something that Disney didn’t intend for you to know.
The uploaded copy wasn’t the original Sept. 30, 1995 Disney Channel broadcast but a May 15, 1996 Australian Broadcasting Corporation rebroadcast on the Wednesday World documentary series. The ABC produced a wraparound for the documentary featuring one of their hosts discussing the film. The Australian host offered a rather shocking confession from the producer about Disney’s meddling to suppress discussion of James Dean’s sexuality, for a truly absurd reason:
Some people have thought that this portrait of James Dean was a little coy about some aspects of his private life, in particular his sexuality. When I put this to the producer-director Gary Legon, he said, “Most of these stories are untrue and full of exaggeration. The one, though, which appears to be true would be the affair he had with a New York advertising executive who helped his career along when he was a starving actor looking for a break.” Gary Legon also told me there had been a point in the production when they were going to touch on Dean’s sexuality, and the Disney company, who were the broadcasters in the U.S., were initially OK about this. However, they eventually changed their minds in the light of the fact that, in all the other bios on Dean, the subject was never mentioned.
In 1995, this was simply untrue. David Dalton’s own James Dean: The Mutant King from 1975 had mentioned it, if only to deny most of it. Royston Ellis in 1961, Venable Herndon in 1974, and Ronald Martinetti in 1975 had all centered their biographies around the “shock” of discovering Dean had had sex with men, particularly onetime advertising executive Rogers Brackett. The American Broadcasting Company hosted a televised Wide World Special debating it in 1974. (I know: How bizarre!) Kenneth Anger had made wild accusations about gay S&M sex in 1959 and again in 1984 in his two Hollywood Babylon books, and more than a year before the release of James Dean: A Portrait, Paul Alexander published Boulevard of Broken Dreams, his factually dubious but nonetheless analytically accurate 1994 account of the role homosexuality played in shaping James Dean.
I was taken aback to find someone actually admitting to corporate interference to suppress discussion of Dean’s sexuality, something that was long rumored and could be inferred from the fingerprints left behind. My feeling is that the change in the documentary partway through is another echo of the impact of Boulevard of Broken Dreams. As I have previously discussed, the book’s massive—and negative—news coverage in 1994 appears to have led to the collapse of what Warner Bros. had planned to be a prestigious Oscar-baiting James Dean biopic. The project’s failure was later blamed on an inability to find the right actor, or a director, but at the time the producer was angrily explaining why he would not include any queer “innuendo and rumor” in his film. News reports at the time wrote of how top actors worried that playing Dean would cause them to be seen as gay.
This was also the time that, according to a 2022 anthropological study of the Dean cult, the James Dean Estate, felt “betrayed” by Alexander, with whom they had cooperated, because Alexander hadn’t told them he was going to discuss homosexuality. Shortly after, they cracked down on any discussion of Dean and queerness. The Portrait documentary was produced in cooperation with the estate, whose trademarks and copyrights are listed in the end credits. A Sept. 29, 1995 article in the North Jersey Herald & News reported that Legon had “unlimited access to Dean’s estate” and quoted Legon as saying he was “very careful” with the documentary to please the family.
I do wonder how much coordination occurred between major media companies and the Dean Estate to “protect” Dean’s image by suppressing discussion of his sexuality, something that was by and large minimized from nearly all media about Dean from 1995 through to the present. This incident very much has the whiff of the Estate’s idea of “We don’t talk about that!”