How the legacy of James Dean lives on today

James Dean, whose brooding image helped movie classic Rebel Without A Cause
James Dean, whose brooding image helped movie classic Rebel Without A Cause
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Ahead of the re-release of James Dean’s most iconic films, Tony Earnshaw takes a look at the impact of the actor whose star was extinguised at just 24-years-old.

Perhaps the funniest story about James Dean wasn’t actually about James Dean at all.

It involves Martin Sheen who, in the 1970s, had acquired something of the mantle of the dead star. And during a flight on which Sheen was a passenger an adoring female voice was heard to say, “Doesn’t James Dean look good for his age?”

Dean was a self-created star who sought attention as much as he claimed not to seek fame. One of his bon mots, and oft-repeated after his untimely death, was “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.”

Except, of course, Dean didn’t. He met his death in a high-speed collision on September 30, 1955, near Cholame, California. He was killed instantly. And just as instantly he was transformed into a cult figure.

The accepted information on James Dean is that he made only three movies and then, BAM!, he was gone.

It’s not entirely accurate. Dean made a huge impact in Rebel Without a Cause, the only one of his major films to be released during his lifetime. The other two, East of Eden and Giant, came out as grief over Dean was building to full throttle.

In actual fact Dean made seven movies. In one of them, Has Anybody Seen my Gal?, he enjoys a scene-stealing moment as a young man ordering a complex dessert. But it is the big three that everyone remembers.

But memories, like film stars, fade. Today Dean is remembered for some iconic looks – the red jacket in Rebel, the rifle across the shoulders in Giant, the wounded eyes of the boy in East of Eden. He has not fared as well as Bogart, Monroe, Wayne and others in that pantheon of icons.

And that is because his oeuvre is so slim. He was on TV, too, and in the theatre. But stage successes linger only in the memories of those that witnessed them, and TV tapes are wiped. So only the movies bear testament to Dean’s impact.

But what an impact. Born in 1931 James Dean was several years younger than his counterparts Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. And it was with Brando and Clift that he was generally compared.

Yet Brando kept Dean at a distance. It is said they met only once and, even then, photographs of the liaison show Brando looking pained, awkward, even seeming to give his acolyte the finger.

But Brando was the touchstone for so many young actors in the 1950s. To watch him in A Streetcar Named Desire, screaming “Stella! Stellaaaa!” as he implodes in a mix of desperation and madness, is to understand and appreciate his raw sexuality, fragility and power. It was all rolled into one.

Dean arguably copied Brando and gave his shtick a twist. Seen today Dean’s on-screen antics are mannered and over the top; he is evidently acting. But that was the Method approach and Dean embraced its style.

He was blessed with great collaborators in those final films though while the directors might have admired him they didn’t necessarily like him. Raymond Massey, playing his father in East of Eden, couldn’t understand Dean at all. But then Massey from a different age – a disciplined actor of a mode and form born in the 19th century. Dean was looser, baggier, uncontrolled.

And when he was given free rein to rampage through his scenes it was not something Massey had ever contemplated.

Dean and his legacy represent a contradiction. He didn’t grow old, eccentric and corpulent like Brando. He didn’t disappear into a miasma of drink, depression and drugs like Clift. Neither did he build his career to its peak and then slowly fade away like McQueen. Instead he’s trapped in the amber of the movies.

Dean even sits outside of those more modern victims of tragedy such as River Phoenix and Heath Ledger. Phoenix was popular but cannot claim the same impact as Dean. Ledger’s sudden death and its shockwaves, however, has its parallels.

And so James Dean remains unique. His life, alleged bisexuality, predilection for masochism, quirks (such as playing the bongos with irritating glee) and fascination with fast cars has long been pored over.

Yet it’s for his acting that he should be focused upon. Dean was a product of the 50s but, even in Giant aged just 24, he was exhibiting signs of a range and maturity that eluded several of his contemporaries.

Put plain, Dean was a meteor. He required the firm hand of a trusted director to guide and rein him in. He found that control in Nicholas Ray, Elia Kazan and George Stevens, the men who made his final three films. He would have needed similar treatment from the man who came after them.

We shall never know how he would have fared had he lived into the 1960s and 70s. Would he have followed Brando’s path through the 60s, plodding through one flop after another? Would he have burned out like poor, anguished Clift who limped on for 10 years following a car crash from which he never full recovered.

Or would he have embraced the counterculture, emerging as a new star like Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson or Peter Fonda?

James Dean was the epitome of the angst-ridden, misunderstood youth – the angry kid with fierce tears stinging his eyes and fire in his belly.

In the 1950s he stood for something and his trio of classic films fly a standard for the motif of the post-war American teen.

Whether he is still relevant remains to be seen.

Rebel without a Cause, East of Eden and Giant (all PG) are being rolled out in cinemas over the next month.