James Dean portrayed all the emotional turmoil, confusion and angst that many teenagers felt but could not openly express.
James Dean’s legend lives on 66 years after his death
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
James Dean is an enduring Hollywood icon. He made only three films: East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause and Giant and then he was gone; killed in a car crash aged 24 near Cholame, California while en route to a car race in Salinas.
September 30 is the 66th anniversary of Dean’s untimely death. Yet, his legend has endured; the public reaction and mass hysteria that ensued had not been seen since the death of silent film star, Rudolph Valentino, in August 1926 at age 31.
Dean was a forerunner to the rock ‘n’ roll era. Although, he was not a singer; Dean embodied the image of a rock ‘n’ roll “badass.” In photos, Dean rarely smiled. He looked angry, moody and vindictive; pouty yet sexy. He rode motorcycles and drove fast cars, wore white T-shirts, jeans and leather jackets. Dean smoked cigarettes. He looked cool doing it.
Notably, Dean was the first Hollywood actor—post World War II—that teenagers could identify with. Dean portrayed all the emotional turmoil, confusion and angst that many teenagers felt but could not openly express. The roles Dean portrayed in his three films were troubled men, rebellious and anti-authority in nature. Dean conveyed the image of a true rebel and a free spirit. For some, he symbolized a middle finger pointed at authority. He wanted to do things his way, on his terms and not by anyone else’s. Those qualities and attributes would attract followers like a cult.
Dean’s seminal performance in Rebel Without A Cause; released a month after his death, solidified his connection and popularity with adolescents. His final film, Giant, was released 14 months after his death in November of 1956. Dean would become the first actor posthumously nominated for an Academy Award as he received Best Actor nominations for East of Eden and Giant (Dean lost both times). Remarkably, he remains the only actor in film history to receive posthumous Academy Award nominations on more than one occasion.
Although Dean’s film career was brief, he apprenticed his thespian skills by appearing in a plethora of live television shows while living in New York (1951 till 1954). Dean also starred in two Broadway plays; See the Jaguar in 1952 and The Immoralist in 1954. Director Elia Kazan would soon take notice; and cast Dean in his first film, East of Eden.
Perhaps one reason why Dean was such a captivating actor and could convey such raw emotional intensity stems from a traumatic childhood after his mother, Mildred, died of cancer in 1940. The family had been living in Santa Monica, California and Dean’s father, Winton, a dental technician struggled. Unable to take care of young Jimmy, Winton sent him away to live with his Aunt Ortense (Winton’s sister) and Uncle Marcus (last name Winslow) on their farm in Fairmount, Indiana.
Dean’s image as a rebel was further enhanced by his love of speed. He loved motorcycles and fast cars. During the filming of East of Eden, Dean bought a 1953 MG-TD sports car. He later purchased a Porsche Super Speedster; before he traded it in for a Porsche 550 Spyder—the vehicle he was killed in.
After Dean’s death, mass hysteria and worship had begun. For the next three years following his death, Warner Brothers received thousands of letters addressed to Dean—some claim more than any living Hollywood star at the time. Rumours circulated that Dean was not dead and that he was badly injured and scarred from the car accident and kept in isolation at a sanitarium.
Nonetheless, loyal fans continue to make the annual pilgrimage to Dean’s adopted hometown of Fairmount, Indiana on the anniversary of his death. Christy Pulley Berry is the president of the Fairmount Historical Museum. Interestingly, her late father, Bob Pulley, was a classmate and friend of James Dean. Pulley was also a pallbearer at Dean’s funeral. The museum contains the world’s largest collection of Dean’s personal belongings. “Most of them are on loan from the Marcus Winslow family,” Berry said in an email interview with the Other Press. “We have two motorcycles, his artwork [from grade school to adulthood], scripts, the switchblades from Rebel Without A Cause, his racing suit and trophies and his conga and bongo drums. We also have some of his [favourite] clothing including a motorcycle jacket, boots, shirts and watches—plus a shirt he wore in East of Eden. And so much more! People are drawn to his motorcycles and his clothing but love his baby clothes and art.”
Berry said Dean’s image continues to be popular with each new generation. “In my opinion he is timeless! His looks, hair, clothes…” she said. “[He] has never gone out of style. Also, there are [so] many photographs of him. They are everywhere and he had so many different looks, moods, etc. Everyone can relate. I think it only takes a few pictures for people to want to know more. Then they discover his movies and see his performances. They are hooked! His acting has stood the test of time as well!”
Noted James Dean author, Warren Beath, has been a lifelong Dean fan. Beath has written three novels and two non-fiction books—including his 1986 book, The Death of James Dean. He lives in Bakersfield, California close to the crash site. “James Dean was the star who was born when he died,” Beath said in an email interview with the Other Press. “His films are his gospel and his death was his assumption into godhood, complete with devout followers, pilgrims, and holy relics. He lives on forever young, our slightly tarnished hero. His death in the middle of the century was a major cultural event, the birth of an icon. Not even licensing and pasteurizing by the family and CMG can dim his light.”
Beath says Dean’s sensitivity and willingness to show his feelings appealed to him. “He navigated in his three testaments the confusion and sexual ambiguity, the search for an identity, of those coming of age,” he said. “Fans believed he was of them and offered a way out—a cool, yet vulnerable persona they assumed in imitation—the sincerest form of worship. Then he died and that certified him with those with teen angst. He was now either a god or a ghost. Because he really didn’t die but just changed shape, and became a risen symbol and way shower.”
Beath also concurs that Dean’s massive popularity worldwide is a phenomenon; equating it to a mid-century cultural earthquake. “It’s a faith, a religion,” he said. “He has disciples. Pilgrimages. High priests. All the earmarks of a religion, and he’s not a bad saviour to follow, give the limited and unsatisfactory choices teens had—examples like their parents and authority figures. He offered emotional freedom. And he knew so much about them, their feelings and insecurities and bewilderments and secret hurts. The part of us James Dean speaks to is the yearning romantic, the confused kid in all of us. And that’s endemic, eternal.”
American film critic, Leonard Maltin, said James Dean’s legacy and impact on films and popular culture is unparalleled. “I can’t think of another actor who achieved stardom so quickly; who held it for such a short time and then kept it for such a long time,” he said in the 1996 documentary, James Dean and Me. “James Dean became a star in one calendar year—and then left us. But he’s still being talked about. He’s still being revered. He’s still being iconized [66 years later]. I don’t think there’s another example like it in the entire history of movies.”
Dean has legions of fans that were not even born when he was alive. There are numerous YouTube videos showing fans visiting Dean’s hometown and gravesite—as well as the crash site near Cholame, California. Dean’s enduring image and popularity have transcended generations. He will forever be 24; preserved and intact—a timeless symbol of teenage rebellion.
The late actress, Julie Harris, who co-starred with Dean in East of Eden, compared his short Hollywood career to a shooting star. “I liken it to a kind of star or comet that fell through the sky,” Harris said in the 1988 documentary, Forever James Dean. “And everybody still talks about it. They say, ‘Ah, remember that night when you saw that shooting star.’ That was it. I mean, he had that enormous appeal and magic.”