James Dean and a Crisis of Faith

Last night I watched one-third of the immortal James Dean’s entire filmography, Rebel Without a Cause (which, on the whole, was cheesy and lame. Yea, I said lame. Like a 7th-grade girl). Most of the reactions in my film class seemed to be “The whole time I was just thinking ‘How awesome is James Dean’?” or “That just proved that James Dean is the epitome of cool.” But I came away from all the hip and hype with a different response, one of confusion and disappointment. Why was–why is–James Dean looked upon as so doggone cool? If we’re disregarding his tragic, untimely death and looking at him as an actor, it all came off a bit…Hollywood. I’m sure he used to love hearing that, but for me his performance seemed staged, phony, forced. Anger seemed to come unnaturally to him, and humor just as difficult. Acting drunk (which I assume looked no different in the 1950s as it does today), Dean looked like a child, a stoner, or a man with a mental handicap. Sure, in the 50’s he was probably the handsomest man around, but now I just don’t see it. We have James Franco, who looks almost identical for two unrelated actors from different generations (after all, he was James Dean in the 2001 TV movie), but we don’t place him on the same pedestal. Let’s re-regard Dean’s tragic death in 1955 at the age of 24. He was the first person to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination (for Best Actor in East of Eden, which he lost) and the only to receive two posthumous nominations (the other for Giant, which he also lost). His death, undoubtedly, played a role in both nominations, especially the first. I wasn’t alive in 1955, and I haven’t seen either of his nominated films, but I can guess that his death helped his cause. He’s quotable: “Dream as if you’ll live forever; live is if you’ll die today” and “Only the gentle are ever really strong,” for instances. Einstein and Maya Angelou are notable quotable celebrities (and if you doubt Einstein’s celebrity, just look at the face on every classroom poster and nerdy tee-shirt in America) but nor do we regard them as the coolest person ever. What did James Dean do besides say a few quotes, wear a few leather jackets, and star in (literally) a few movies? Tons of actors today do that. Will George Clooney’s legacy live 60 years? Doubtful. Still, Dean’s legacy lives on, people watch his movies often (for whatever reason, Rebel Without a Cause‘s IMDb page is currently rising in popularity), and posters with his visage  still fly off the shelves at your local Walmart. Why? Heck if I know. He’s not the greatest acting, nor the best looking, nor the funniest, not the most relatable guy around. He didn’t seem like the kindest man in the world either, and his a veil of mystery confused me. I’m having a crisis of faith, why should I believe that James Dean is the coolest man who ever lived? Enlighten me. Please.

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5 thoughts on “James Dean and a Crisis of Faith

  1. Whenever the young and beautiful die prematurely, their fame is solidified, the ol-candle-in-the-wind, right? “Rebel” is perhaps his most iconic role but he’s stronger in GIANT. I added you to my blogroll; enjoy!

    1. So many have died before their time (Phoenix, Cobain, Tupac!)…I would consider River’s performance in “Stand By Me” more impressive than Dean in “Rebel.” Why James Dean?

  2. Very well written take on James Dean. You don’t see what all the fuss is about. While I agree he wasn’t the benchmark for ‘cool’ I do feel he put everything into his roles from his short life experience and obseving others. Search my blog for a book review I did on ‘Surviving James Dean’. In that review I posed the same questions you did and gave my answers on why his acting so moves me and endures decades after his death.

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