Who was James Dean?
He was born in 1931. He died in 1955. He loved racing cars. He only had major roles in three Hollywood films, but made all of them classics. For many of his fans, he is perfection itself. And yet now, in 2015, there is a vague, rarely-recognized possibility that he could be forgotten.
Dean is most remembered for his rebellious, emotional young adult personas in “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause”. Dean was, by all family accounts, a fun-loving, life-endearing young man who had a rebel streak. While Dean’s photogenic looks were arguably the most crucial reason for his success, he couldn’t have been famous without his legendary acting. This was, after all, the man who won two Golden Globes for his all-consuming passion for acting and sometimes unscripted movie scenes. Because of his superb talents that made his characters come to life, Dean came to embody teen attitude in a way that many other actors of the time (including Ronald Reagan) could not. Dean was effortlessly classy, but not too greek god-like to forego blue jeans and a leather jacket.
Teenage angst was Dean’s ultimate gift to the American Teenager. Ah, yes. We may laugh at the seemingly superficial first world problems teenagers in America deal with, but we little realize that Dean set the golden standard in his film roles. It may be unfortunate to remember an actor with so much potential as an annoying high school student, but his influence on the American Teen is something worth remembering. We commemorate Dean for his grown-up classiness, and yet many adult fans of Dean claim to have been inspired by his youthful rebellion. Adults and youths alike look at Dean’s golden-haired, angsty persona and are automatically inspired to be rebels themselves. They want desperately to live dangerously. However little his fans truly know what James Dean was like, they intend to live out his rebellion in true style. And rebellion comes in many colors. Debit cards with photographs of Dean are available if you, too, want to become someone who rebels against nothing.
After Dean’s death in September of 1955, kids anxiously flocked to JcPenney’s to buy classic Dean-esque white T-shirts. They played up juvenile rebellion and acted discontent to create a whole new image of the American teenager. Teens were attracted to Dean’s personality, only more mysterious because of his young death. Like Dean, they wanted to “live forever” and be “eternally cool.” Dean was automatically enshrined as a legend, and everyone wanted to experience something legendary. It’s the same phenomenon that caused teenage girls during Charles Dickens’ time to imagine that they were afflicted with -or to even try to catch- tuberculosis for a “fashionable” and romantic death.
Teenagers have a tendency to act wildly, but not until Dean’s three major film roles and subsequent death-by-car-accident did America accept this tendency with open arms. Just like tuberculosis, Dean’s powerful emotions and blue eyes easily “caught on.”
James Dean, in his movies anyway, is the ultimate icon of American culture and American mindsets. He defined the unique status of mid-century American kids: a generation that was, for the most part, very privileged, and yet had to answer for the nastiness of World War II. America was powerful, but while American teens wanted to live normal lives, there was a subtle realization that the 1950s was the start of a period of great change. Teens’ lives underscored by drive-thru movies, dances, gossip, sports, and little apparent worry for anything else. Reflecting the mentality of mid-century American society, Dean acts on screen as if he confused his double status as both a human being and an outcast. We can still see that trend now. Don’t we all live in a society that contradicts itself?
Dean’s films carry a tint of wistfulness, largely because we know that his life was such a short one. Just as Dean ushered in a new uncertain and unprecedented era of American society, he left us. And post-war America was left to wonder, what if? What does it really mean to be a youth in America?
Despite his influence on the Average American Teen, younger Americans ironically credit him very rarely for today’s controversial American youth culture. We gush about cool modern singers and movie stars, but Dean’s hometown of Fairmount, Indiana sums itself up as the place “Where Cool was Born.” Teenagers of today refuse to believe that anything more than a few years old is worth thinking about, let alone “cool.” Many Generation Xers are familiar with James Dean, but even some of them don’t credit Dean’s cinematic genius. Instantly in 1955 it was cool to be an outcast. We see this theme in The Outsiders, Grease, and even in The Breakfast Club. After all, John Bender struggles desperately to be understand by his father. And Dallas Winston is Mr. Tough Guy because of social injustice… or something. Yet who was it but the Rebel himself who had emotional fits on screen? Who was it but James Dean who was characterized in his most iconic film role as the original “Rebel Without a Cause,” the enigmatic “bad boy from a good family?”
Most kids my age don’t know who James Dean is, and likely don’t pretend to. The few who have heard of him are often only familiar with his name and little else, let alone his awe-inspiring acting and his rugged classiness. Some teenagers may be familiar with Dean only because Taylor Swift sings “You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye…” in her song “Style.” I’m sure there are instances where Hollywood actor James Dean has been confused with Jimmy Dean the singer, or Jimmy Dean of sausage-making fame. All the while, it is undeniable that Jimmy Dean of Hollywood was the one who defined the American Teenager as we know it. In many ways, what little we know of Dean doesn’t show how “cool” the next generation is. It just means that we forget who James Dean was, and what America in the 1950s was like.
If we were honest with ourselves, we probably wouldn’t understand Dean much today. Dean’s state-of-cool is understated liquid gold, but would we have much use for a 24 year old Hoosier with a soft, boyish voice who loves Porsches, loves Pier Angeli (“who or what is that anyway?” you ask), loves acting to a fault, and is really just a family-oriented man with a vague understanding of what fame is?
To be frank, Hollywood might tell Dean to go back home to the farm in 2015. We just can’t appreciate underrated skills anymore. Hollywood tends to promote “new talent,” little of which is actually new, and most of which is just obnoxious copying of talent. Justin Bieber recently made hilarious, if over-the-top (and actually quite offensive) comparisons between himself and Gandhi. Oh, and he compared himself to James Dean, too. Modern American pop culture just loves “fresh” new talent, but it only recycles the overall package. Hollywood constantly looks for the next Audrey Hepburn and the music industry looks without success for the next Johnny Cash or Michael Jackson. We end up living in a cycle, one that is tangible but not logical.
The average 14-year old may prefer Justin Bieber or Katy Perry over Dean, but all credit for fresh, untainted Teenage Rebellion Americana style goes to James Dean. Every time Disney comes up with another unrealistic, self-conscious movie on teenagers going through difficulty, and every time a young adult fiction novel advertises a so-called “refreshing” cookie-cutter plot, there might as well be a note somewhere in the end credits or on the back of the front cover that proclaims “Copyright James Dean 1955. All Rights Reserved.” After all, Dean was the original example for the stereotypical agonized young adult. For all our obsession with teenage rebellion, we as Americans have not yet successfully rebelled against Dean’s still little-understood image of the Rebellious American Teenager.
By 2060, will James Dean be forgotten? I don’t know. I personally don’t adore the thought that any talented person from the past could potentially be forgotten and left to the little-read annals of history. Many of his fans worldwide are so enthusiastic about Dean that it seems like an impossible theory. It still could happen. As the next generation, we might just credit our cultural importance to what exists in the here and now. But as long as American youth culture as we have known it since the 1950s still exists, Dean’s impact on the world will continue to thrive. And so, James Dean’s spirit lives on. Just not in the way we expected it to.