James Dean is one of the most iconic actors of all time; there can be no debate. This is remarkable given that he tragically passed away aged just 24 in a car accident all the way back in 1955, coupled with the fact that he only starred in three films, one of which was posthumous.
If you’re unfamiliar with James Dean, then please bear with us. At this point, you’re probably asking yourself why a man who only starred in three movies is so revered. Well, it’s a strange tale, and it’s one that has to do with the way humans love to fetishise a figure after an untimely death, and more importantly, the way Dean’s off-screen life mirrored that of his characters.
This is the inherent, troubling irony of Dean’s situation. It is likely that without his tragic death, where he was canonised forevermore as a troubled 24-year-old, he would not have anywhere near as much of the status that he has today. In short, his premature death sealed his image as the embodiment of youthful rebellion ad infinitum.
Through his films East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, both of which were released in 1955, Dean symbolised the dilemma that was typical of teenagers at the time and still is today, with feelings of isolation and frustration oozing through both of his characters. Through these roles, he appealed to the dark side of youth and provided a palpable, refreshing contrast to the overtly sugary depictions of teenagers/young adults in film at the time.
Capturing the impact he had on that generation, legendary actor Martin Sheen, who based his character Kit Carruthers in 1973’s Badlands on Dean, said: “All of his movies had a profound effect on my life, in my work and all of my generation. He transcended cinema acting. It was no longer acting, it was human behaviour.”
In fact, an innumerable amount of iconic actors have all cited Dean’s influence on their decision to follow the career path. These include Johnny Depp, Nicholas Cage, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, and are a testament to the organic and deeply human feelings Dean so expertly conveyed.
Retrospectively, Dean is regarded as a massive influence in the development of rock ‘n’ roll, as the anti-establishment, individualist spirit his characters oozed in both films are seen as harbingers of the ethos of the genre. Rebel Without a Cause, it goes without saying, is undoubtedly his most famous film, and its themes concerning emotionally confused, middle-class, suburban teenagers inspired the outlooks of some of rock’s early legends such as Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, to name but a few.
Upon revisiting the film, it is clear to see that its sensibility is drenched in what we know as rock ‘n’ roll. The defiant attitude and effortless cool of his character Jim Stark can undoubtedly be hailed as a defining point in not only the development of rock ‘n’ roll as a mainstream phenomenon but also in the way that it helped to establish a now well-worn character trope; The Outsider.
Without the film, there would be no Tyler Durden from Fight Club, no The Breakfast Club, Rumble Fish or even classic teen shows such as Skins. Let the implications of that set in. The film established rock and roll as an outlook, aesthetic and a way of life. Additionally, he can be seen as a progenitor of the fluid sexuality that would finally break the rigid status quo in the following decade.
Dean was a deeply troubled individual, one who endured a harrowing life. His mother died of cancer when he was just nine years old, and it is alleged that he once turned to Elizabeth Taylor, revealing to her that he was abused by a minister in the years following his mother’s death. A broken individual, he famously sought solace in daredevil activities, including motor racing and bullfighting.
Dean was the real-life version of Stark, and a walking, talking embodiment of J.D. Salinger’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, from the 1951 movie The Catcher in the Rye. The proliferation of teenage angst in the ’50s would deeply embed itself in popular culture and is today seen in so many different guises. It’s here that we get our true point. The stereotype that James Dean truly established has been taken quite literally by many since its release. The used, the abused and the forgotten. It speaks to those that are quite rightly angry at a world that has failed them, as Dean was 66 years ago. This is a brilliant thing.
However, much like with Caulfield, the over-pronounced literary forebearer of Dean, often people read too literally into the character we’ve all known as James Dean in the years since his death. We must be clear; his most strident disciples are in no way near as deranged and murderous as some of Caulfield’s. However, there is a sense of teenage futility inherent to it all.
Much like with those that would base their entire existence off of the late Kurt Cobain in the years after his suicide, the same people who unwaveringly believe “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”, the heavily romanticised essence of Dean’s life and death has made him a God-like figure for those struggling for an identity. This is deeply ironic as the late actor is widely known to have suffered an ongoing personality crisis across his adult life.
Understandably, teenagers and young adults who have not been dealt the best hand find solace in Dean’s life and work, but to see it in a capacity that is any more than that would be a deeply flawed way of looking at things, as hope always remains, even if it does not seem so. For people to live their life strictly according to his life is hollow, and people seem to forget that Dean was not a one-dimensional character. Whilst the pain and confusion clearly took up a significant chunk of his being; it was not all so bleak. People often forget this.
James Dean, the human being, endured pain that no one should ever have to, so the attempt to embody his “pained” existence when coming from a comfortable background is crazy. Whilst the dull pain of middle-class boredom might be too much to bear, it’s never enough to warrant copying someone who’s actually been through hell. It’s the overtly nihilistic or “tortured” types we see dotted across our colleges and art schools who we’re talking about. Those who try their absolute hardest to embody elements of the genuinely pained lives of artists such as Dean or Kerouac, but it just comes across as contrived.
This is indicative of the fetishised character we afford the creative world’s most troubled but brilliant minds who pass away prematurely. It’s almost as if being an emotionally dense individual adds more colour or flavour to the character that is delivered across the pages of the biography we’re reading or from the film we’re watching from our comfort as perennial spectators.
Regardless, humanity has always been this way in terms of elevating a figure after their death, but the advent of technology and the inertia it has brought has changed things. It has made the likes of Dean, Kerouac, Cobain and Co. appear as more candid figures from a bygone era where the individual reigned supreme, rather than the era of bovine passivity we get today, where everything, even Brexit, is a pastiche.