September 30, 1955: James Dean’s Day–We Still Love Ya, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

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

Would James Dean be the legendary icon that he is today, fifty years after his death, had he made twenty 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 culture with only three movies to his credit

Dean died in a highway car crash, on September 30, l955, while driving to Salinas to a racing event. Fifty years later, 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 star, the personification of restless American youth. On and offscreen, 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 often is the norm in Hollywood, periodically, there would be talk about making biopics of Dean life. Ten years ago, Leonardo DiCaprio was attached to such a project. The Dean Foundation showed interest too in making a “true-to-life” narrative, though one that would not mention 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.”

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 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 anti-hero type, in “Red River” and “The Search,” in the late l940s, drawing on the tradition of John Garfield, who had died young, in 1951. By the early l950s, Brando had already established a new kind of tough yet sensitive hero. However, neither Clift nor Brando was uniquely identified as a youth star. No other actor of Dean’s era, not even his contemporary Elvis Presley, was so entirely embraced and loved by the younger generation.

Dean’s novelty 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 age. In “East of Eden,” “Giant,” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” Dean embodied teenagers who were not yet hardened by life but were 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 affection from their parents. Dean projected the viewers’ own suppressed pain, their sense of suffocation by a crass, 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 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 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 classmates. Dean wagged war on the dictates of American society that valued material success at whatever human cost.

In many ways, Dean the icon never died, and his legend is not dated. Every generation seems to appropriate Dean’s myth as its own, 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 impact of “Rebel” on Hollywood).

Dean’s persona was ahead of its time in reflecting anxieties, sexual ambiguity, revision of gender roles, and insistence that ultimately every person should be accepted as an individual. How many movie stars can make such a claim How many have left such a legacy in such a short period of time

Dean was not political in the explicit sense of this term. His films were restricted to sexual and domestic politics, zeroing their attack on the family as an institution. Dean suggested masculininity, despite need to express his weaknesses and vulnerabilities. And while he was not the first male 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.” Defeated, Dean weeps over Plato’s body, and then continues to cry on his father’s shoulders.

Dean presented a radical reversal of gender roles one in which gentleness and grace, previously considered women’s exclusive domain, are also claimed by men. In “East of Eden,” Dean rejected his father’s macho model as a man incapable of expressing physical affection. As the opposite of his father and brother, Dean offers a 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. Dean’s capacity to give and to love, qualities traditionally relegated to women, makes him mature and responsible as a man.

In “Rebel With a Cause,” Dean’s Jim Stark rebels against another type of father. If the father in “East of Eden” is too tough, the father in “Rebel” is too weak. Both men fail to provide a desirable role model.

The film’s central characters, Jim, Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo), have all been deprived by their parents. 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, and determined with great resolve to cope with them. The dilemma faced by Dean in his movies 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 they would become in the late 1960s, in the wake of “The Graduate,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “Easy Rider.” Seeking love, Jim and Judy wish to have a home and children (Plato is their child).

Dean’s heroes emerge as their own men, living by personal values. They can cry without forfeiting the regard of their women. More significantly, they don’t permit their good looks to prevent them from full exploration of their identities. Dean’s persona was symptomatic of the national ailments during the Eisenhower years, a conformist society that allowed no legit ways for youths to express their anger.

Dean always seemed older, sadder, and more experienced than the adults in his films. His resignation and fatalism, based on profound criticism of society’s duplicitous mores, showed 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 self-deception.

American society today is too sharply polarized to have a coherent star system, but in l955 it still believed in the melting pot ideology and seemed unified enough to have powerful stars that embodied the values of a whole generation. Dean appealed to young viewers 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 most closely identified with his screen image. If “Casablanca” represents the ultimate Bogart film that captures his mythic persona, “Rebel” is the quintessential Dean film, in which Dean basically played himself; his hero’s name is also Jim. Interestingly, two of Dean’s three films, “East of Eden” and “Giant,” were set in rural America of the past, and yet Dean’s appeal was with urban youths.

“Rebel Without a Cause” was released a few weeks after Dean’s death and “Giant” was completed without him. Still, Dean is the only player in Oscar’s history to have received two posthumous nominations, for “East of Eden” and “Giant.” Dean was next to play in the sports drama, “Somebody Up There Like Me.” Paul Newman, who auditioned for the brother’s role in “East of Eden” but didn’t get it, inherited the role and became a movie star. Steve McQueen, who has a tiny part in “Somebody,” went on to major stardom a decade later. Such are the vagaries of film history.