I can't name many actors that shot to fame based off doing only three major films, but one such star is James Dean. Known as a rebel, a maverick, an outsider, Dean excelled at playing flawed teenagers that just wanted to truly be heard in the 1950s.
After appearing in Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, and Giant, Dean gained a strong following of men and women alike who wanted to date him and be him. The world knew Dean would continue to impact us with his real and heartfelt performances. Tragically, Dean died much too young just when his career was blossoming.
Leaving behind only three films, the impact is still to this day deeply profound and engrained in pop culture.
James Byron Dean was born in 1931 in Marion, Indiana, but moved to Santa Monica, California at the age of six. While he was never really able to see eye to eye with his father, he was incredibly close to his mother, who he felt was the only person who truly understood him.
She sadly passed away due to uterine cancer when Dean was only nine years old.
Dean's father was unable to raise James, and therefore sent him back to Indiana to live with his sister Ortense and her husband Marcus, who were both Quakers. With an absent father figure in his life, Dean looked to the local Methodist paster Rev. James DeWeerd as a source of guidance and encouragement. DeWeerd helped inspire Dean's interest in bullfighting, car racing, and most importantly theater.
James kept it a secret, but eventually DeWeerd began to sexually abuse Dean when he was just 11 years old.
A Life in the Theater
James Dean moved back to Los Angeles to live with his father, stepmother, and dog named Max. He attended Santa Monica College and later transferred to University of California, Los Angeles. He started studying law, but changed his major to theater, causing friction between him and his father. His father didn't support his intense interests in the arts, and therefore stopped supporting Dean.
Dean dropped out of school after one semester to pursue a career as a full-time actor.
The Struggling Actor
Dean played bit roles as he attempted to break into the industry. He studied with acting coach James Whitmore, and worked as a parking lot attendant at CBS Studios for some meager cash.
Dean struck a relationship with Rogers Brackett, a radio director for an advertising agency, who not only offered him professional advice, but also allowed him to stay at his place to help the suffering actor.
After gaining admission to study at the legendary Actors Studio, Dean honed his skills in method acting under Lee Strasberg himself, who taught the likes of Marlon Brando and Julie Harris. Dean understood how prestigious it was to study with Strasberg, and he found himself to be the youngest actor in his class.
East of Eden
In 1953, Elia Kazan, director of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, was searching far and wide to find an actor capable of playing such an emotionally complex characters as Cal Trask for East of Eden.
With a Marlon Brando-type in mind, Kazan was encouraged to audition the young unknown James Dean. Dean was cast as the role, as he seemed perfect due to his moody, aloof nature.
Impressively, most of Dean's performance in the film is improvised. One particularly touching moment included Dean lunging for his father, sobbing hysterically, while trying to hug him, when the script instead called for Cal to run away from his father. Kazan was so deeply affected by the performance, he kept this take for the final film.
His real-life strained relationship with his father helped shape the role of Cal and became a basis for his future roles to come, as the theme of an uninvolved father figure shadowed the rest of his career and paralleled his real life.
This role landed him a posthumous nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role, the first posthumous acting nomination in history.
Rebel Without a Cause
Cigarette in mouth, red leather jacket dangling in his arm, and full of angst, James Dean starred as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. He portrayed a young teenager who feels unheard and misunderstood by family and peers alike along with talented actors Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, and Dennis Hopper.
This film released in 1955 truly resonated with young adults at the time, as it accurately described the sentiments and struggles of being a teenager.
Released in 1956, Giant was unfortunately Dean's last film before his untimely death. He costarred alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. This was the first role in which he didn't portray a young troubled teenager, but instead he played a Texan ranch hand who strikes oil and becomes rich.
While acting as the older version of his character, Dean died his hair and shaved some parts off to give the illusion of a receding hairline.
Dean received a second posthumous Best Actor Academy Award nomination for the role of Jett Rink.
Rumored Bisexual Behavior
James Dean was known for dating many famous actresses in Hollywood, including Beverly Willis, Pier Angeli, Liz Sheridan, and Ursula Andress.
Dean was also romantically linked to many men, like screenwriter William Bast and biker John Gilmore. It is debated exactly what his sexual orientation was, whether it be bisexuality, homosexuality, or experimentation. But Dean has been quoted saying, "No, I am not a homosexual. But I'm also not going to go through life with one hand tied behind my back."
Who need labels anyway?
Dean's Untimely Death
In 1954, Dean developed an auto racing career, and purchased multiple vehicles, including a Triumph Tiger T110 and a Porsche 356. Fearing for his life, Warner Bros. forbade him from any races during the production of Giant. Once Giant was in post-production, Dean began to pick up racing again.
Reminiscent of Paul Walker, Dean and his crew of friends headed to a racing event in Salinas, California on September 30, 1955. While heading down US Route 466, a driver made a hesitant turn away from an intersection, which placed him in the center of the road. Dean was unable to stop and therefore slammed into the car, then into the side of the highway.
The driver lived, but Dean's Porsche was completely destroyed. Dean was found to have a broken neck. He sorrowfully died almost right after impact at the young and tender age of 24 years old.
His funeral took place October 8, 1955 and featured a closed casket, as his corpse was too mutilated to be displayed.
James Dean gave the voiceless teens a voice. He taught us it was okay to be misunderstood and a bit of an outsider. He wasn't afraid to live fast, even though the risk of dying young was always looming ahead.
His short-lived career might have only lasted over a span of a few years, but his lasting impact is one that has caused him to be remembered even now as the rebel of Hollywood without a cause even 60 years later.