Today marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of James Dean’s untimely death. James was 24-years old and had starred in just three movies (only one of which was released) when he died. In many ways he was just beginning. Still, he’s one of the few Classic Hollywood actors who’s fame survived the test of time. Since his death James has only gained in popularity and he’s not just a talented actor anymore; he is a legend. He is one of those rare stars that transcends generations: it’s not just grandmothers who had a crush on him, it’s their granddaughters too.
So what is it about James Dean that makes him so iconic? His time defying status started early, because he was exactly what Hollywood needed. It was the fifties and the times they were a-changin’. Kids did not want to live the life that their parents wanted and they did not relate to them, generational gaps were created. But Hollywood and the movies it created did not reflect that.
Films did not show teenagers struggling and parents faltering. They did not show the disconnect between the geneartions and the world outside changing. Instead, parents on screen were always stern but fair and the teenagers cheerful and innocent. Even off-screen the actors were expected to be gentlemen and the actresses ladies. Though the new medium of television brought the harsh reality of the world into your living room, films were still showing a perfect place with perfect people. People the new generation could not relate to. Then came James Dean. An outsider, a loner-he was the antithesis of everything a well-behaved person was supposed to be. Surly, rude, confident and rebellious. Teenagers identified with him instantly. James was also a member of the famous Actor’s Studio, which taught him the now famous Method Acting. A new way of acting that defied the old-fashioned style of older icons like Laurence Olivier. On top of that, he was handsome with a devil-may-care attitude. Girls loved him and boys wanted to be him. He was the face of the new generation.
This image was cemented when he passed away after a fatal car crash. Rumors were abound that the rebellious James had been driving way too fast, enjoying his sports car, not caring about the consequences. Although this may not be accurate, it doesn’t matter anymore. It confirmed a ‘live fast, die young’ attitude that was attributed to him and that he will be associated with forever more.
A few weeks after his death, Rebel Without A Cause was released. It was the perfect vehicle for him. He played the surly, angst-ridden, confident loner perfectly. The character of Jim Stark was so much like his public persona that he and James quickly became one. Rebel Without A Cause was the first film that showed a teenage life from their point of view. Conflicted, rebellious teenagers who were struggling. Needless to say, it was a huge hit with younger audiences and the film is still associated with that generation.
But James Dean grew to be more than that. Because he died so early in his life, he stayed young forever. As new generations grew up, they too related to him. He was the cool kid that did not listen to the rules, but he was also the anxious, sensitive guy that wanted to be left alone. His style was timeless and his looks still as attractive as ever. Because James was an up and coming star, he did a lot of photo shoots before his death. Pictures that refer to his image as a rebellious loner, like the famous image of him walking down the street alone on a rainy New York day. These pictures are sold all over the world and keep his legend alive.
In 1955 girls were crying over the loss of a beloved young actor. In 2015 Taylor Swift was heard on the radio swooning: ‘You’ve got that James Dean, daydream look in your eyes’. Proving that even a short life can have a lasting impact and that you’re not truly dead until your forgotten.
Read more about James Dean’s life.