Movie Stars: Dean, James–Youth Icon

The film critic Peter Rainer has raised a legitimate question in the 1980s, namely: Is it conceivable that a movie star today could have the impact on American youth that James Dean had on kids and adolescents in the 1950s.

“A Rebel Without a Cause” (Dean) and “The Wild One” (Brando), which preceded it by two years, sentimentalized their rebels, making them part of a social “problem.”  It is a credit to the personality of Dean and Brando that their very presence (and acting) was far more troubling, more enigmatic than their melodramatic pulpy movies.

In movies like “Rebel Without a Cause,” or “Easy Rider,” their problems were simplified to problems of growing pains and the function of living in broken homes (single parent, or absent parent), misunderstood by the adult world, teachers and parents.  The psychic rebellion of 1950s stars like Dean and Brando was turned inward.  The broken home became a symbol of the uncaring society at large.

Audiences felt protective toward James Dean because he was really looking for true love and friendship and understanding.

But I think Rainer is wrong in claiming that the last “real” “star” to work his way into the collective national psyche was James Dean; in my view, it was Steve McQueen in his 1960s pictures.

However, no one felt protective toward the counterculture movie anti-heroes a decade later, in movies like “Easy Rider” (1969), starring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, or “Five Easy Pieces” (1971), which made Jack Nicholson a major star.  After the studio system, audiences tended to identify less with a particular movie star–say Jack Nicholson or Dusting Hoffman–than with the malaise and problem they represented.