Claudia Leisinger


No cinematic icon has endured so long from such fleeting screen time as James Dean. As the 50th anniversary of his death sparks a yearlong tribute, DVD Review assesses how a 24-year old actor with just three film roles to his name continues to captivate.

Rebel With A Cause: Leigh Singer

There’s a classic Clint Eastwood one-liner in his 1976 Western The Outlaw Josey Wales that James Dean’s entire brief life and career flatly contradicts. In the film, Eastwood’s outlaw confronts a self-justifying bounty hunter sent to kill him. "A man's got to do something for a living these days," the would-be assassin gripes. Clint’s cool retort: "Dying ain't much of a living, boy."

The legion of James Dean fans, not to mention the guardians of his estate, might beg to differ. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the actor’s tragic death, killed in an auto accident on a remote Californian intersection, aged just 24. Since then his reputation, his cultural significance, his marketability has only grown. As with other beloved public figures deemed to have passed on prematurely – Hendrix to Cobain, Monroe to Princess Diana – Dean’s youthful beauty remains frozen in time; in death, somehow more vividly alive.

The essence of the live-fast-die-young narrative is the tantalisingly unfinished life story left behind; extrapolated into infinite “What If..?” scenarios, excavated for clue, meanings. Numerous Dean biographies exist, often with provocative subtitles like ‘The Mutant King’, ‘Little Boy Lost’ or ‘Portrait of Cool’. All for a slim legacy of lead roles spanning only three movies – East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause and Giant - two of them released posthumously.

Had he lived on, Dean would have turned 74 in February this year; the same age, aptly enough, as Clint Eastwood. Eastwood, too, established an early iconic presence though has survived through career peaks and troughs and changing fashions to enjoy an unexpected, Oscar-winning career twilight. But Eastwood is very much the exception to the rule. Perhaps Dean would have done the same. Or perhaps, like his idol Marlon Brando, he’d have tarnished his reputation with increasingly eccentric roles and outbursts. Either way, in the words of photographer Phil Stern who took many of the actor’s iconic shots, his early demise “precluded anyone seeing him as a pot-bellied, bald-headed old man”. In a youth-obsessed culture, that’s a real head start.

It’s also painfully evident today, as DVD Review attends the Hollywood launch of Dean’s 50th anniversary yearlong commemorative tribute. Gathered here to pay tribute are many of Dean’s former co-stars and friends; actors who were just kids in Rebel… or Giant, now well into retirement, some none too steady on their feet and frail of voice. It’s a sobering contrast to the footage and photos that flash their onetime colleague’s fresh-faced, brooding good looks onto the screen behind them.

The tributes are heartfelt and vociferous. Michael Sheridan, director of the new in-depth documentary James Dean: Forever Young explains, “When I saw East of Eden, I was stunned. Seeing Jimmy act installed in me the impression that I could do anything and that anything was possible.” Martin Sheen, another lifelong fan who narrates the documentary, adds: “All three films have had a profound effect on my work and my life and my generation, I believe.” Considerable dramatic weight for a deceased twentysomething actor to support.

This year’s worldwide planned tributes certainly add to the load: stage adaptations of East of Eden and Rebel… in Tokyo; the launch of Sheridan’s documentary at the Cannes Film Festival; digitally restored versions of Dean’s three movies theatrically re-released and available as a DVD box set; and a three-day “James Dean Fest” held in his hometowns of Fairmount and Marion, Indiana, complete with photo exhibitions, car and motorcycle shows and the world’s largest digital drive-in. The organisers confidently expect around a quarter of a million people to attend.

So just what is it about James Byron Dean that continues to illuminate, fascinate, resonate? While those coming late to the party can still enjoy the trio of landmark performances, read the books and study the photographs, with Dean as with many phenomena, part of the appeal lies in the timing: to get the full effect, you simply had to be there.

Those who were make their initial encounters with Dean sound like a religious experience. Sheridan recounts making a pilgrimage as a 17-year old to Dean’s former home in Fairmount on the first anniversary of his hero’s death. For Martin Sheen, “He transcended cinema acting – it was no longer acting, it was behaving and it was deeply, deeply personal. If it’s not personal, it’s impersonal; and if it’s impersonal then nobody really cares and you’re wasting your time doing it.”

High praise indeed, but was Dean really such a pioneer? Bitten by the acting bug from an early age, at 18 he headed out first to the West Coast and the theatre-arts department of UCLA, before leaving for New York to audition at the prestigious Actors Studio. Still considered the place for intense young thespians and then under the stewardship of legendary ‘Method’ acting coach Lee Strasberg, at the time the Studio’s most famous son was Marlon Brando. Brando’s raw, naturalistic, almost animalistic portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in both stage and screen versions of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire had sent shockwaves through the acting community. Dean was desperate to follow in his footsteps.

Perhaps a little overly keen. Accepted into the Actors Studio as its youngest member, Dean had only just begun his second Broadway show when he quit the production and New York. Director Elia Kazan, another Studio founder and Brando’s director on Streetcar, offered him the part of John Steinbeck’s tormented “bad son” Cal Trask in his upcoming film of East of Eden; Dean followed him back out to Hollywood.

Not all early reviews were complimentary of Dean’s debut. The New York Times chided, “he rolls his eyes, he swallows his words, he ambles slack-kneed” - branding his performance a Brando knock-off. But the dominant reaction, particularly among younger viewers, was little short of revelatory. On East of Eden’s release in spring 1955, James Dean made the headlines, becoming an overnight star. Yet within six months the same papers would run his obituary.

At least word of his talent had already spread far enough to line up his next two roles: another troubled youth, Jim Stark, in director Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause; and dirt-poor Texan Jett Rink who strikes oil in the Texan epic Giant, opposite stars Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Just two weeks after he completed his scenes on the film, on September 30th, 1955, Dean took his fateful last journey.

This partially helps explain the huge outpouring of grief and disbelief news of his death prompted. Rebel… hadn’t even opened (it debuted in October) and no doubt many aroused by all the hype hadn’t yet gotten around to seeing East of Eden. Still, in early 1956 Daily Variety reported “James Dean topped the fan mail list at Warner Brothers, with 4.038 in January. Tab Hunter followed with 3,900.” A record, His Name Was Dean, put out on a small label, sold twenty-five thousand copies in a single week. His grandparents said they averaged thirty teary-eyed visitors a week at their home in Fairmount, Indiana. Dean went on to receive the very first posthumous Oscar nomination for Best Actor in East of Eden, a feat he would repeat the following year for Giant.

The intensity of the anguish felt by Dean’s loss is directly tied up in these emblematic roles that he played. Cal Trask and Jim Stark in particular spoke to a youthful post-war generation struggling with a strange new world. America in the 1950s was a time of unprecedented economic prosperity yet still bound by rigid social conventions. In his book The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, writer Thomas Hine notes that the very concept of a “teenager” had only been coined in the 1940s; the previously straightforward path from childhood to working adult suddenly none too clear. As Hine posits, “such a concept rests in turn on the idea of the adolescent as a not quite competent person, beset by stress and hormones.”

Dean rode the wave of this hitherto unparalleled outpouring of youthful frustration and energy, alongside Elvis Presley and rock and roll or Brando and his Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in The Wild One (“What are you rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?”); Cal Trask and Jim Stark, plaintive, sensitive souls questioning and struggling against the constraints of society, family and peer-group pressures. While Brando raged, Dean engaged. He spoke directly to vast numbers of young people unable to articulate their own disaffection but damn sure able to recognize it in a charismatic screen hero.

A preview interview Dean gave for Rebel is fascinating in how it endorses and conflicts with this liberating effect he fostered among audiences. “It is the romanticized conception of the juvenile that causes much of our trouble with misguided youth nowadays,” he claimed. “You've got to show what it's really like, and try to reach them on their own grounds. You know, a lot of times an older boy, one of the fellows the young ones idolize, can go back to the high school kids and tell them, ‘Look what happened to me! Why be a punk and get in trouble with the law? Why do these senseless things just for a thrill?’ I hope Rebel Without A Cause will do something like that.”

It’s impossible to know how much irony was delivered amid the whiff of prescriptive, studio-approved finger-wagging there but Dean’s self-awareness of his own nascent screen persona is well documented. As photographer Phil Stern remembers it, the iconic “peek-a-boo” roll-neck sweater shot was Dean’s “own concoction. I wish I’d had the creativity to think of it myself,” he admits. “Every snapshot that was made of him, he knew how it would appear like. He was in control.”

Such statements contradict the popular image of Dean as an entirely spontaneous, uncalculating force of nature. In the same way, the more egocentric demands of his idiosyncratic working methods are readily buried to praise the dynamic end results. As with many other mysterious celebrity deaths, rumours and conspiracy theories abound. Dean wasn’t really killed that day, but vanished, severely disabled; or that he deliberately killed himself, his work on earth done. Despite high-profile liaisons with starlets like Ursula Andress and Pier Angeli, his sexuality has been constantly probed. It’s all fodder for the myth and is partly responsible for keeping it going.

Friends, family and fans all lost something on James Dean’s death, but surely no one lost more than a talented young actor just beginning his journey, in an instant denied the longevity of a Brando or an Eastwood. “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today,” goes his famous quote. Love, money, inspiration, all are reasons for us to see James Dean not as a 74-year old man but as a multimillion-dollar baby, forever young. All enable us to keep the dream alive.


Everyone has an opinion on James Dean. Here are a few from people actually in the know.

"Every boy goes through a period when he's seventeen or so when he hates his father, hates authority, can't live within the rules. . . It's a classic case. Dean just never got out of it." Elia Kazan, director East of Eden.

In some movie magic way, he managed to dramatize brilliantly the questions every young person in every generation must resolve." Joe Hyams, biographer James Dean: Little Boy Lost

"That kid Dean...gave us a lot of trouble, but it was worth it. He was surrounded with stars in Giant, but we believe he was twenty-five percent responsible for the success of the picture." Jack Warner, Warner Bros. Studios.

"His movements on stage were far removed from the carefully rehearsed planned positions. The result was pandemonium for everyone except Mr. Dean and his sick ego." actor and TV co-star Vaughn Taylor.

“He made clear in his silences what words could not do.” Dean’s acting coach Lee Strasberg.

"Dean died at just the right time. He left behind a legend. If he had lived, he'd never have been able to live up to his publicity." Humphrey Bogart

"He seemed to capture that moment of youth, that moment where we’re all desperately seeking to find ourselves." Giant co-star and friend Dennis Hopper.


A talented car racer, Dean was also an accident waiting to happen…

Photographer Phil Stern believes it was “inevitable” that James Dean died in a car crash. After all they first met in 1955 when Dean’s trademark seat-of-your-pants driving nearly killed him in an accident on Sunset Boulevard. Ever since his father bought him a used ’39 Chevy in 1949, Dean became hooked on cars; specifically, driving them really, really fast.

An avid racer, he finished third in his first two professional races and was in fourth place in his final race before his Porsche Super Speedster blew a piston. Weeks before he died he traded his Speedster for a silver Porsche 550 Spyder, commissioning custom car artist George Barris to paint his Giant set nickname “Little Bastard” on it. It was on route to another race in Salinas, California that Dean’s Porsche collided with a Ford sedan driven by student Donald Turnupseed. Dean’s passenger, his mechanic Rolf Wutherich, though wounded was thrown free; Turnupseed sustained minor injuries; Dean died almost instantly.

Two weeks earlier, James Dean had appeared in a 30-second commercial for the National Highway Safety Committee. His line? “Take it easy driving. The life you might save might be mine.”

June 2005

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