PopMatters Associate Music Editor
At a recent double-feature screening of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause at Los Angeles’ Nuart Theatre, the crowd spanned generations. There were older cinephiles, those who had probably seen the films upon their original release and were communing in the spider-webbed ritual of reminiscence. There were the middle-aged movie snobs, expressively debating whether Nicolas Ray was an underrated auteur or a perpetrator of melodrama. And there were college freshman seeing the films for the first time, who, in true Mystery Science Theater fashion, found some of the old-school lingo to be deliciously ironic (“I’ll bet you’re a real yo-yo!” elicited the most laughs). The real draw of the night, however, was one that resisted the attendees’ scrutiny and ridicule: the perennial, age-defying icon James Dean.
Dean’s iconic status is perhaps one of the most improbable in the history of American cinema and pop culture. He starred in only three feature films (all shot within the span of one year) and was dead before two of them, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), could be released. Yet he remains the quintessential manifestation of Hollywood’s leading man archetype, an instantly identifiable figurehead of America’s obsession with fame and idolatry. Along with Marilyn Monroe, Dean’s visage is plastered all over the architecture of Los Angeles: souvenir shops, movie theatres, and vintage clothing recyclers. All of these businesses use the Dean image (red jacket with zipper at half-mast, glimpse of pure white t-shirt, cigarette held at waist level) as the ultimate emblem of Hollywood lore and lure.
Although he was in his early 20s, Dean’s most heralded roles in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955) and Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause were depictions of teenagers. His portrayals of Cal Trask and Jim Stark are conflicts searching out a resolution, tortured attempts to reconnect the disillusioned teenage psyche with stringent demands of the father. Dean’s immediate connection with scores of theatergoing teenagers (and, likewise, his lasting impact) is largely due to his serendipitous adoption of the teenage prototype. The very concept of “the teenager” was still in its infant stage in the ‘50s, newly christened to describe the awkward age set as the gap between children and their parents widened. Prior to World War II, many adolescents would attend high school for only a year or two, dropping out to start families and secure jobs. Suddenly, the end of the war ushered in tremendous economic growth and stability; fathers acquired higher-paying jobs in the thriving corporate and commercial sectors. Kids suddenly saw their period of adolescence—gawky and demeaning, adventurous and liberating—prolonged over many years. Families that once led regionalized existences gradually became part of the modern collective consciousness. With the advent of television, the sense of unification became inescapably universal. Seizing upon the reorganization of the country’s social structure and its economic boom, profiteers convinced teenagers of their misunderstood place in the family unit, feeding them the rebellion and fashion of rock ‘n’ roll music.
Dean’s role in East of Eden may have instigated his widespread popularity, but Rebel Without a Cause would forever link him to teenage rebellion and angst. Rebel subverted the supposed calm of ‘50s niceties, deeded to white America as a reward for winning the war-to-end-all-wars; Dean’s Jim Stark questions the façade his parents had helped to erect. He begs his father to admit that he, too, is aware of the phoniness and passive-aggressive conceit surrounding their everyday lives. (The “stand up for me!” scene on the staircase, in which Jim pleads with his father to confront the horrible truth about the fatal drag race instead of submitting to the feigned ignorance of his mother, remains one of the greatest cinematic moments to broach the frustration in squeezing logic from the unresponsive. Incredibly, the scene has been misinterpreted as a dated example of ‘50s misogyny by surface-dwelling revisionists like the Los Angeles CityBeat, which called it a “quaint and embarrassing remnant of pre-feminist, ‘50s Freudian hoodoo”.)
With this one role, Dean unintentionally clinched the position of teenage spokesman, a representative projected through celluloid and shared by kids from coast to coast. They reveled in his humor, intelligence, and beauty, but most of all found someone to empathize with them, someone who acted on the same restless impulses, motivated by an absence of satisfaction and obedience. Dean’s stood out as the character to emulate for an adolescent audience hungry to liberate itself from the Father Knows Best paradigm. He differentiated himself from Rebel‘s other teenage characters, notably Buzz and his gang, by using rebellion in the name of truth and honesty, not just as a status symbol in the social food chain: he fought the clean-cut social norms as a more likeable and commercially viable Holden Caufield, fusing a “hoodlum” style with that of the sensitive outcast.
His devastatingly good looks and ‘50s loner chic have often overshadowed his intuitive acting style; many look at Dean in retrospect and see a matinee idol, a pin-up, not a craftsman on the exulted level of his contemporary Marlon Brando (whose “rebel” performance in The Wild One  fits the stereotype that Dean was trying to avoid). Roy Schatt’s photo portraits from 1954, including the famous “torn sweater series”, divulge a much more complicated presence, obliterating any uninformed preconception that Dean was nothing more than a pretty face. But Dean was more than just the face of New Hollywood: along with Brando, one of his major influences, he ushered in a style of acting ripe with realism and enlightened by the Method. “I’ve discovered that most young men do not stand like ramrods or talk like Demosthenes,” Dean said of his preparation for Rebel. “Therefore, when I do play a youth… I try to imitate life.” But Dean didn’t just imitate life onscreen. He wore his characters’ language all over his body, knotting his arms around his chest when the words didn’t feel right; speaking intelligently and coolly until conflict reduced him to wails; and turning his back to characters, talking to the walls and the bushes. Watching Dean now is like observing someone in the room who knows more than everyone else but is too shy to let on.
That he was an actor of extraordinary talents is a fact that’s been routinely sacrificed for his cultural deification. Dean has transcended movie stardom to own a tiny plot in our collective unconscious next to Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, and John Wayne. These iconic images have been infantilized and diluted over time, bred to exclude complexities beyond their most basic stereotypes: the tramp, the hussy, the outlaw, the rebel. This kind of pigeonholing serves a culture that prides itself on definitions of the lowest common denominator, as it’s easier to understand an explicit piece of typecasting than a model of more human distinction. It also eliminates any recollection of Dean’s role as ranch hand-turned-millionaire Jett Rink in George Stevens’s Giant, his most understated and complex performance, because the it doesn’t fit his culturally dictated image. When you peel back the layer of cultural baggage from the picture, you expose what really matters behind those painted murals on Hollywood Boulevard: generous performances that try to make sense of human frailties and imperfections. Dean’s short-lived legacy has benefited from its inclusion in the cultural bloodstream, but on this 50th anniversary of both his death and the completion of his films, remember him as more than just a guy in a jacket leaning against a wall.