Movie Stars: Dean, James–Still Love You, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

Edgar Morin, the French sociologist, once observed: The face of James Dean is an ever-changing landscape in which the contradictions, uncertainties, and enthusiasms of the adolescent soul can be discerned. 

Would James Dean be the legendary star and icon that he is today, decades after his death, had he made twenty (instead f only three) movies and lived longer than 24 years?  I doubt it.  But can you think of another star that has had such influence on our cinema and pop culture with only three movies to his credit?

Dean died in a highway car crash, on September 30, 1955, while driving to Salinas to a racing event. Fifty years after his death, Dean is well and live in our collective consciousness.  It’s impossible to separate Dean’s acting from what we know about his life offscreen, even if what we know may not be factual; fact and myth fuse in Dean’s case.

In a little more than a year, Dean became a widely admired movie star and the personification of restless American youths.  On and off-screen, he embodied the values of his hero in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), his best-known picture which has acquired a cult status.

Numerous books have tried to explain the mythos of the star–and the real person behind it.  And as is often the norm in Hollywood, periodically there would be discussion about making biopictures of Dean life; years ago, Leonardo DiCaprio was attached to such a project.  The Dean Foundation has shown interest too in making a “true-to-life” narrative, though one that would not mention a thing about Dean’s alleged homosexuality (or bisexuality).  The family was reacting against Paul Alexander’s book, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times and Legend of James Dean,” which discussed the star’s “gay encounters.”

Glamour of Delinquency

Gay or straight, Dean enshrined what the New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael once called “the glamour of delinquency.” “When the delinquent becomes the hero in our films,” wrote Kael, “it’s because the image of instinctive rebellion expresses something in many people that they don’t dare express.”  Indeed, Dean’s image went beyond his handsome and sexy appearance.  What we remember the most is the hurt in Dean’s eyes, the torment of his expression, the intensity of his look.

Dean was not Hollywood’s first youth hero.   A bit older, Montgomery Clift introduced the sensitive male, the anti-hero type, in “Red River” and “The Search,” in the late 1940s, drawing on the tradition of John Garfield, who had died young, in 1951.  

By the early 1950s, Brando had already established a new kind of tough yet sensitive hero.   However, neither Clift nor Brando was specifically and uniquely identified as youth stars.  No other actor of Dean’s era, not even his contemporary Elvis Presley, was so entirely embraced and loved by the younger generation.

The novelty of Dean was to suggest that men could also be tormented by feelings of rejection and loneliness. Well into his twenties, Dean was too old to play high school students, but that was Hollywood’s norm at the time.  Besides, the mythic importance of Dean’s characterizations went beyond biological age.  In “East of Eden,” “Giant,” and especially “Rebel Without a Cause,” Dean embodied rather than played teenagers, who were not yet hardened by life but already alienated from their feelings.

Dean’s fans transformed him into a cult figure, because he evoked adolescence’s inevitable loneliness, their own inability to find meaningful affection from their parents.  Dean projected the viewers’ own suppressed pain, their sense of suffocation by a crass and materialistic society, epitomized by the bourgeois nuclear family.

In “East of Eden,” Dean played Cal, the “bad” brother, obsessed with being loved by his stern, authoritarian father.   Cal’s wildness stems from the trauma of rejection by the person whose approval he wants the most.  The movie explores an identity crisis that every adolescent experienced and could relate too.  “I gotta know who I am, “I gotta know!” Cal says, reflecting the feelings of millions of youngsters.   In “Rebel Without a Cause,” Dean is a moody, unloved outcast, distanced from his parents in a culture that demands conformity and mediocrity at the expense of nurturing one’s unique personality.

In his quest for meaning, Dean emerged as a new kind of hero.  He was a lonely adolescent who was self-absorbed yet also cared for others.  The tenets of Dean’s moral credo were: Independent judgment, free sexuality, and individualistic freedom–“No one tells me what to do!”   Dean refused to conform to someone else’s ideas of right and wrong, be they parents, teachers, or even his classmates.  Dean wagged war on the dictates of American society in the 1950s that valued material success at whatever human cost.

In many ways, Dean the icon has never died, and his legend has not dated.  Every new generation seems to appropriate the myth of the man as its own and for its own needs.  This may explain the continuous stream of youth movies, made in the mold of “Rebel Without a Cause,” year after year. (See Essay on the movie’s impact on Hollywood).

Dean’s persona may have been ahead of its time in his anxieties, sexual ambiguity, revision of gender roles, and insistence that ultimately every person should be accepted as an individual rather than as group member.  How many movie stars can make such a claim? How many of them have left such legacy in such short time period?

Dean’s persona was not political in any explicit sense of this term.  His films were mostly restricted to sexual and domestic politics, zeroing their attack on the family as an institution.  Dean suggested by his demeanor and values that he was still masculine, despite the need to reveal and express his weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  And while he was not the first male star to cry onscreen, who can forget his anguish over the senseless death of Sal Mineo’s Plato at the end of “Rebel Without a Cause.” In defeat, Dean first weeps over Plato’s body, then continue to cry on his father’s shoulders.

In his movies, Dean presented a radical reversal of gender roles, one in which gentler characters and graceful expressions, previously the exclusive domain of women, are claimed by men.  In “East of Eden,” Dean rejected the macho model of his father, a man incapable of expressing physical affection for his sons.  As the opposite of his father and brother, Dean offers an infinitely more positive male image.  He is able to cry without shame, and he is able to show tenderness and win a woman’s heart because he is a loving man.  It’s Dean’s capacity to give and to love, the very qualities traditionally relegated to dependent women, not vital men, which makes him mature and responsible.

In “Rebel Without a Cause,” Dean’s Jim Stark rebels against another type of father.  If the father in “East of Eden” is too tough and insensitive, the father in “Rebel” is a weakling and insensitive too, and as such fails to provide him with a strong and desirable role model.  The film’s central characters, Jim, Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo), have all been deprived by their parents. They reunite and together, they create an alternate family, bestowing upon each other the love and tenderness denied by the adults in their lives.  Jim will accept no macho facade or defense, valuing his feelings above all, and determined with great resolve to cope with them.  The dilemma faced by Dean in his movie is how to be true to his own feelings and yet strong.

It’s noteworthy that the aspirations of the film’s triangle are traditional, not yet the counter-cultural goals they would become in the late 1960s, in the wake of “The Graduate,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” and especially “Easy Rider.”  Seeking love, Jim and Judy want to have a home and children (well, Plato is their child).

Ultimately, Dean’s heroes emerge as their own men, living by personal values.  They can cry without forfeiting the regard of their women.  More significantly, unlike many leading men, they do not permit their physical beauty to prevent them from the full exploration of their identities.  His movies and person were symptomatic of the national ailments during the Eisenhower years, a conformist society that allowed no legit ways for youth to express their anger.

Though only in his 20s and playing youngsters, Dean seemed older, sadder, and more experienced than the real (and reel) adults in his films.   His resignation and fatalism, based on profound criticism of society’s duplicitous mores, showed up the restricted nature the world he inhabited.  Though occasionally driven to wildness and violence, Dean was more of a disenchanted romantic than a rebel The world as he saw it has fallen away from grace and nobility into vulgarity, materialism, and phony self-deception.

American society today is too sharply polarized to have a coherent star system, but in 1955 it still believed in the melting pot ideology and seemed unified enough to have powerful individual stars that embodied the values of a whole generation.  Dean appealed to the young, because he understood that youths knew some instinctive truths (feelings rather than knowledge) about the world that adults had looked away from.

End Note:

Dean worked with Hollywood’s best directors at the time: Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray, and George Stevens.  Of his three films, “Rebel Without a Cause” is the one film that’s most closely identified with him.  If “Casablanca” represents the ultimate film that captures Bogart’s mythic persona, “Rebel Without a Cause” is the quintessential Dean film, in which he basically played himself; his hero’s name is also Jim.  Not much has been made of the fact that two of Dean’s three films, “East of Eden” and “Giant,” were set in rural America of the past, and yet, Dean’s major appeal was with contemporary urban youths.

“Rebel Without a Cause” was released a few weeks after Dean’s tragic death and “Giant” was completed without him.  Still, Dean is the only player in Oscar’s history who has received two posthumous Best Actor nominations, for “East of Eden” and “Giant.”

Paul Newman Owes his Stardom to James Dean?

Dean was next scheduled to play the lead in Robert Wise’s sports melodrama, “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” Instead, Paul Newman, who auditioned for the brother’s role in “East of Eden” but didn’t get it, inherited the role and became a major movie star.  Steve McQueen, who has a tiny part in “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” went on to major stardom a decade later.

Such are the vagaries and vicissitudes of film history and movie stardom.