Icons of Cinema: Rebel With a Noble Cause

ʻThe only greatness for man is immortalityʼ – James Dean

If you ever happen to cross paths with the jaded film critic who remarks:

ʻI donʼt seem to understand what all the fuss is over James Dean… I mean, he only made 3 films…ʼ

…then turn around and reply:

ʻExactlyʼ.

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The kid with the quiff and one leg up against the wall. Conservative Americaʼs estranged son. The idolised insubordinate with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

60 years after his untimely passing, James Byron Dean remains the archetypal figure and cultural icon, as significant today as he was to the youth coming up in 50ʼs America. His inspiration prevalent in actors over the decades from Warren Beatty, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and James Franco. To musicians like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Morrissey. You may have seen his snapshot in Arthur Fonzarelliʼs closet in the sitcom Happy Days, or on Rizzoʼs bedroom wall in the musical film Grease… heck, even Beyoncé and Lady Gaga have each mentioned his name in their songs.

Those three films he starred in: East Of Eden (1955), Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Giant (1956) indeed no small feats. Equally monumental in their own right, and directed by the most well reputed filmmakers of the time, they helped cement his reputation as an accomplished actor; so relatable to an America that was changing in leaps and bounds.

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In the words of actor Martin Landau, a close friend of Deanʼs:

ʻJimmy represented something that was happening in the States after the 2nd World War. Until that moment in time, grown-ups- adults- set the styles for clothing, set the styles for music, set the styles for everything that was going on…ʼ

For the film adaptation of John Steinbeckʼs novel East Of Eden, director Elia Kazan had said he wanted ʻa Brandoʼ for the emotionally complex role of Cal Trask. The screenwriter had suggested he cast a young and relatively unknown actor for the role, and, when James Dean jumped a train from New York to Los Angeles to commence shooting in 1954, the rest was glorious cinematic history.

The fact that much of Deanʼs performance in the film was unscripted is testament to the talent and understanding he had for the socially complex nature of misunderstood youth.

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It would be later that same year however, that he would snatch the attention of a teenage America with his portrayal of Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause, ushering in a monumental shift in mainstream culture. Capturing the dynamo of adolescent fervour and projecting it across drive-ins, cinema houses and theatre screens would see every kid sporting denim jeans, T-shirt and a red windbreaker.

Despite all his success with his performances, Dean was determined to avoid being typecast for the role of rebellious teenager. For his part as a Texan ranch hand in George Stevensʼ epic Giant, he would dye his hair grey and shave his head in parts to resemble a receding hairline.

Giant would prove to be his last film. James Deanʼs penchant for high-speed motor vehicles would see his life cut tragically short when his Porsche Spyder collided with another vehicle on a Los Angeles highway at just 24 years old. Still, defiantly so, in the space of 2 years, his prominence as a method actor and iconoclastic figure had left itʼs indelible mark on the next generation.

In the words of designer John Varvatos:

ʻMusic and fashion have had a kind of incestuous relationship since the fifties. It started with people like Elvis Presley and pop icons like James Deanʼ.

(Article written for Oliver Grand, USA, 1/11/2015)

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