James Dean

James Dean

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For someone who completed just three big feature films in his brief career, the effect of James Dean on popular culture is truly remarkable. It is not just the films themselves, but the persona and the magnetism that James Dean exhibited that attracts such fascination and admiration. James Dean's performances hint at so much more. His reaction to the world around him seems to sum up how so many young people around the world relate to their lives.

He was reared by his aunt and uncle in Fairmont Indiana and every September they have a James Dean festival there which runs for a week. There is a concert and open air film screenings held in the town centre as they remember their famous son. His appeal is more widespread though. The James Dean's fan club is a worldwide phenomenon. Pictures of the young star, the brooding pale, hurt-looking man adorn T-shirts and bedroom walls. His image, like that of Marilyn Monroe, is universal and instantly recognisable. Many films have been made about his short life and endless articles and books have been written about him. His violent death at the wheel of his beloved Porsche racing car has been re-examined from every angle. The driver of the other car in the collision spent his life being pursued for interviews about that fateful afternoon. A car museum in the US offered one million dollars for the remnants of the wrecked car that Dean drove that September day.

It seems as though people are trying endlessly to draw closer to the enigma that was James Dean. He has become the idol of every teenager who mumbles ‘You don't understand me' to bemused parents. Yet Dean somehow encapsulates far more than that. There is a confusion in his presence, an unanswered question and a hidden quality about him. As far as people can tell his real life and off-screen persona seem to be inseparable. He expresses vulnerability as well as an amount of danger and unpredictability. You could never be sure what he was going to do or say next. In the roles that he made famous, there is always a sense of mischievousness that he manages to convey. You never take your eyes off him and, in true rebellious style; he is always at odds with the world around him.

That world was the post World War Two generation. It was the same one that spawned the iconic, misunderstood, rebellious Marlon Brando, the fiery sullen method actor who was and perhaps still is a legend.

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It was the generation to which Elvis Presley would lay down the soundtrack. Yet unlike Brando, who was idolised by Dean or Elvis who in turn idolised Dean, James Dean's short life was curtailed by a crash in a fast motor car.

James Dean never grew old. He never put on weight becoming fat and he never staggered into old age. He never married and had kids who blamed him for the shortfall in their lives. He never made dud movies for the money, nor appeared in soap operas, commercials or bared his soul on daytime talk shows. He never lost his hair or lost the allure of a young brooding rebel.

He personified the rebellious nature. The film REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE defined him as the sensitive teenager, an independent and clever outsider with a grudge against his parents and authority, but with a big heart. Yet, it was his previous film EAST OF EDEN that proved Dean was a remarkably gifted actor. In this Steinbeck story of good and bad brothers, it was Dean who played CAL, a misunderstood son unable to win his Father's affection. Teenagers all over the world can relate to a young man trying to piece together his place in the world and what to make of it.

Dean trained in New York as a method actor trying to follow in his hero Brando's footsteps. In his performances Dean is hinting at some expression far wider than the limitations of time and the actual setting. Enigmatic in his personal life, it seems that he created or even existed as a person with very real hang-ups. Yet he seems to have been an articulate and sensitive young man who worked very hard to learn and practise his craft. He could speak intuitively about what it meant to be an actor.

As a professional, he first received awards for the best newcomer on Broadway in a production of Gide's THE IMMORALIST. Those reviews brought him to Hollywood for a screen test and he was cast in both EAST OF EDEN and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. He starred as a non-conforming cowhand in the epic film GIANT. Interestingly he played the younger character as well as that of the older man that he would never become. Always balancing his love of acting with a love of speed and racing, he was on his way to a race meeting when he had his fatal crash. Ironically, he had received a speeding ticket just two hours beforehand.

Until 2005, James Dean was the only actor in history to receive more than one Oscar nomination posthumously and he was one of just five actors to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his first screen appearance.

What could James Dean have achieved had he lived? On the one hand there are those who say that the films he could have made, starred in, or directed, might have been brilliant. These are performances that we will never know about. Neither is it possible to say, as many have done, that the substance of James Dean would have almost certainly burnt itself out. It is possible to say too that it would have been impossible for anyone to have to live up to the hype. The truth is we will never know. Yet in those fragile images, in those few films, we are left with the undoubtable evidence of a major talent. James Dean was a young man who could capture brilliantly the mood and feelings, the hopes and frustrations of young people the world over.

James Dean may be dead but his bright flame will never be extinguished. The stretch of motorway on which he died was renamed the James Dean memorial Junction.
As another generation discover him, they too can relate to a young man who is universal in his appeal and fragility, yet at the same time tough and unafraid. Too fast to live and too young to die, is indeed a suitable epitaph.
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