In the mid-20th century, if you wanted an actor to play a stylish, brooding young man, James Dean was the only candidate. An actor who exuded a particular style that was synonymous with the burgeoning American subculture, the image of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden and Giant became iconic in the growth of Hollywood throughout the 1950s until his untimely death in September 1955.
Inspiring a rebellious youthful subculture thanks to his role in Rebel Without a Cause, Dean has become known as one of the most influential actors of all time, despite only having enjoyed 10 years thriving in the industry. Though his career was cut short, Dean still managed to work with some of the finest filmmakers of the era including Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray and George Stevens, whilst working alongside actors such as Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Dennis Hopper.
Becoming the icon of a generation, James Dean inspired countless amounts of Hollywood stars to become actors, including Robert De Niro who notes Dean as one of his all-time favourites. Speaking in an interview with Kenneth Branagh, De Niro states that James Dean was one of “the most interesting” actors working in America, placing him alongside the talents of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Kim Stanley and Greta Garbo.
Going one step further, De Niro named the James Dean films East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause as two of his all-time favourites alongside the Marlon Brando film On the Waterfront. Discussing the power of Dean as a performer, De Niro told Banagh, “When you saw James Dean do East of Eden he was great, but you can’t do what he could do,” setting the star apart from the rest of any other actor in Hollywood.
As such an influential industry name, many hung on every word and fashion choice of the style icon, with young people becoming particularly enamoured by the good looking star. This extended to James Dean’s favourite films and musicians, noting multiple genres such as African Tribal Music, Afro-Cuban Songs and Dances, classical as his preference alongside artists such as Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra.
It was the iconic American jazz and swinging musician Billie Holiday who was Dean’s all-time top pick, however, recognising her song ‘When Your Lover Has Gone’ as his favourite song of all time. Nicknamed ‘Lady Day’, Billie Holiday was an innovative jazz singer who became an icon in the first half of the 20th century thanks to her idiosyncratic vocal style that was strongly inspired by jazz music.
Performed at the tail-end of her career, the effects of alcohol and marijuana use can be heard in the voice of Holiday in the song below, though her unmistakable talent and remarkable vocal beauty are still very much on display.