In This Article James Dean

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Academic Studies
  • Reference Books
  • Photo Books
  • Biographies
  • Profiles
  • Autobiographies by People Who Knew Dean
  • Memoirs and Interviews by People Who Knew Dean
  • Biographies of Others Who Worked with Dean
  • Biographies of Others Who Knew Dean
  • Writings on Dean’s Films
  • Queer Theory Readings of Rebel Without a Cause
  • Documentary Films about Dean
  • Dean’s Death

Cinema and Media Studies James Dean
by
Kurt Hemmer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0144

Introduction

James Dean (b. 1931–d. 1955), along with the actors Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, ushered onto the American silver screen a type of acting often called the “Method,” which was inspired by the teachings of the Russian director Constantin Stanislavsky. Although there is a great deal of debate over what the Method actually is, it can generally be described as “reacting” rather than “acting,” in order to create a more naturalistic and internally derived style. To what extent Dean absorbed the Method through classes he took with James Whitmore in California and Lee Strasberg in New York, or whether his style of acting was simply “natural,” is a matter of debate. What is indisputable is that his name and reputation are connected to this technique that had a tremendous influence on the New York stage via the Actors Studio before coming in front of Hollywood cameras. Although Dean only starred in three films—East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Giant (1956)—he is still considered one of the major influences on contemporary acting with actors from his own generation (Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Dennis Hopper) to the next generation (Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro) and finally to contemporary actors (Sean Penn, River Phoenix, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Johnny Depp) being inevitably compared to him. A glut of biographies, journalism, and documentaries have accumulated over the years since Dean’s death, in forms often exploitive and sensational, dealing with his sexuality and psychology. Much vigorous scholarship on the true worth of his acting skills and his place in the cultural landscape of his time and in the 21st century can still be done. Unlike Clift and Brando, Dean did not spend much time refining his craft on the stage and did much of his initial work on television. What makes Dean unique is his position as a cultural icon, largely the result of his tragic death in a car accident on September 30, 1955. His image is recognized throughout the world as a signifier readily filled by several types of, often contradictory, iconography: teenager, rebel, all-American, cowboy, biker, punk, homosexual, among others. Born in Marion, Indiana, and later raised in Fairmount, Indiana, by his aunt and uncle after his mother died when he was nine, Dean achieved in his short lifetime what he claimed was most important to him—immortality.

General Overviews

Arguably more than any actor before or since, Dean has been seen as a representative of his time. One of the great ironies of his image is that it simultaneously appeals to the “happy days” of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s. Each generation seems to be able to fit Dean into its pantheon of heroes. Halberstam 1994 does the best job of explaining Dean’s place in the 1950s, the generation Holmes 1958 calls “Beat,” which got its name from Jack Kerouac, and which Holmes believes sees themselves in Dean. Dalton and Craven 1984 examines how Dean appealed to hippies, pop artists, and punks. Michna 2005 looks at contemporary Dean fans. Truffaut 1978 sees Dean’s image as empowering youth culture in a positive manner. Dos Passos 1961 fails to see how enduring Dean’s image will be, but the importance of the Dean icon as a harbinger of the future is captured by Kerouac 1997 in a 1957 piece that foresees Dean’s image in the 1960s, that conflicts with the view of Dean as an icon of nihilism in Astrachan 1957 and Brustein 1958.

  • Astrachan, Sam. “The New Lost Generation.” New Republic (4 February 1957): 17–18.

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    Astrachan sees Dean and the characters he portrays as reflecting a new generation not knowing the difference between right and wrong, rebelling against life itself, and lacking any particular identity.

  • Brustein, Robert. “America’s New Culture Hero: Feelings Without Words.” Commentary 25 (February 1958): 123–129.

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    Dean is held up as one example of the new inarticulate heroes who influenced American culture to embrace and identify with the sex, violence, and incoherency that is prophesizing the end of culture. His posthumous popularity is credited to his characters’ violent combativeness with father-figures.

  • Dalton, David, and Ron Craven. James Dean: American Icon. New York: St. Martin’s, 1984.

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    With an assortment of behind-the-scenes photographs of Dean compiled by archivist David Loehr and a cover displaying a piece by Andy Warhol, this coffee-table book explores why Dean became Hollywood’s last great icon in late-20th-century America. Martin Sheen writes in the introduction, “[T]here was a saying that if Marlon Brando changed the way actors acted, James Dean changed the way people lived” (p. 7).

  • Dos Passos, John. “The Sinister Adolescents.” In Midcentury. By John Dos Passos, 479–486. Cambridge, MA: Riverside, 1961.

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    Dos Passos poetically depicts how youth culture sees itself in the image of Dean. Surprisingly well versed in Dean’s background, Dos Passos recognizes the commodification of Dean but makes a mistake when he suggests that the box office failure of the documentary The James Dean Story (Altman and George 1957, cited under Documentary Films about Dean) is a sign that the idolization of Dean is coming to a halt.

  • Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Ballatine, 1994.

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    Halberstam discusses Dean’s roles in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause as connecting with the feeling of alienation among youth in the 1950s. Although describing Dean as an imitator of Marlon Brando, Halberstam calls East of Eden perhaps Elia Kazan’s best film and Dean’s performance in Rebel Without a Cause the saving grace of a weak script. Halberstam reminds his readers that Elvis Presley wanted to be the James Dean of rock and roll.

  • Holmes, John Clellon. “The Philosophy of the Beat Generation.” Esquire 49.2 (February 1958): 35–38.

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    In his discussion of the Beat Generation as spiritual seekers, a group he considers to be between the ages of 18 and 28 at the time of his writing, Holmes emphasizes Dean as an important icon that the Beats viewed as reflecting themselves.

  • Kerouac, Jack. “America’s New Trinity of Love: Dean, Brando, Presley.” In kicks joy darkness. Performed by Richard Lewis. CD. Salem, MA: Rykodisc, 1997.

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    Richard Lewis reads this unpublished piece by Kerouac written in 1957 for Helen Weaver (one of Kerouac’s girlfriends) and Helen Elliott, both fans of Dean, which is emphasized in Weaver’s The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties (San Francisco: City Lights, 2009). Kerouac believes the popularity of the three eponymous stars heralds the coming of a “Revolution of Love.” This short piece makes it clear that Kerouac was familiar with the film Rebel Without a Cause and the sensational tabloid articles about Dean after his death.

  • Michna, Mary Ann. “Entering James Dean Country.” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 17.2 (Spring 2005): 30–35.

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    Michna believes that Dean fans such as David Loehr, Pamela Des Barres, Mark Kinnaman, and Mary Emmerick see in Dean the same emotional sensitivity that they see in themselves.

  • Truffaut, François. “James Dean Is Dead.” In The Films in My Life. Translated by Leonard Mayhew, 296–299. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978.

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    Written in 1956, Truffaut states, “[Dean] acts something beyond what he is saying . . .” (p. 297). Dean’s style is more animal than human, claims Truffaut, and that is why he is unpredictable. Truffaut sees Dean as a Baudelairean hero who represents the youth of the mid-1950s with his ambiguity and weaknesses.

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