James Byron Dean in Marion, Indiana, 8 February 1931.
Attended Santa Monica City College (1949–50); attended University
of California, Los Angeles approximately one semester (fall 1950); studied
at the Actors Studio, New York.
1950—appeared in Pepsi-Cola TV commercial; 1951—attended
James Whitmore's acting workshop in Los Angeles; first role in a
nationally broadcast TV program; bit parts in three Hollywood films; moved
to New York City; 1952—between 1952 and 1955 appeared in more than
two dozen TV programs, beginning with bit parts and graduating to starring
roles; at 21 years of age, the youngest actor (at the time) to be admitted
to Actors Studio in New York; Broadway debut in the short-lived play
See the Jaguar
; 1953—appeared in significant roles in numerous TV programs;
especially noteworthy: "Bells of Cockaigne" (
Armstrong Circle Theatre
, NBC), "Harvest" (
Robert Montgomery Presents
, NBC), and "Something for an Empty Briefcase" (
, NBC); 1954—important TV roles continued; received critical
acclaim for second Broadway role as the provocative homosexual houseboy in
, but gave notice almost immediately to star in Elia Kazan's film
East of Eden
; signed first contract with Warner Bros.; began amateur career as sports
car racer; 1955—completed starring roles in
Rebel Without a Cause
; cast as Rocky Graziano in MGM's
Somebody Up There Likes Me
; negotiated nine-film, six-year contract with Warner Bros.
30 September 1955 in automobile accident while en route to a sports car
race, just weeks before the release of
Rebel Without a Cause
and a year before the release of
; buried in Fairmount, Indiana.
Fixed Bayonets (Fuller) (bit role as soldier cut from film)
Sailor Beware (Walker) (uncredited bit role as sailor); Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (Sirk) (uncredited bit role as soda shop customer)
East of Eden (Kazan) (as Cal Trask); Rebel Without a Cause (Ray) (as Jim Stark)
Giant (Stevens) (as Jett Rink)
"Another Dean Hits the Big League," interview with Howard Thompson in New York Times , 13 March 1955.
St. Michael, Mick, James Dean: In His Own Words , London, 1989.
Bast, William, James Dean: A Biography , New York, 1956.
Salgues, Yves, James Dean ou le mal de vivre , Paris, 1957.
Ellis, Royston, Rebel , London, 1962.
Tysl, Robert W., Continuity and Evolution in a Public Symbol: An Investigation into the Creation and Communication of the James Dean Image in Mid-Century America , Michigan State University Ph.D thesis, Ann Arbor, 1965.
Ciment, Michel, Kazan on Kazan , London, 1973; New York, 1974.
Dalton, David, James Dean: The Mutant King , San Francisco, 1974.
Herndon, Venable, James Dean: A Short Life , New York, 1974.
Gilmore, John, The Real James Dean , New York, 1975.
Howlett, John, James Dean: A Biography , New York, 1975.
Martinetti, Ronald, The James Dean Story , New York, 1975; 1995.
Stock, Dennis, James Dean Revisited , New York, 1978; San Francisco, 1987.
Whitman, Mark, The Films of James Dean , London, 1974; St. Paul, Minnesota, 1978.
Schatt, Roy, James Dean: A Portrait , New York, 1982.
Bourget, Jean-Loup, James Dean , Paris, 1983.
Morrissey, Steven, James Dean Is Not Dead , Manchester, 1983.
Roth, Beulah, and Sanford Roth, James Dean , Corte Madera, California, 1983.
Dalton, David, and Ron Cayen, James Dean: American Icon , New York, 1984.
Beath, Warren Newton, The Death of James Dean , London, 1986.
Devillers, Marceau, James Dean on Location , London, 1987.
Hoskyns, Barney, James Dean: Shooting Star , London, 1989.
Adams, Leith, and Keith Burns, editors, James Dean: Behind the Scene , New York, 1990.
Riese, Randall, The Unabridged James Dean: His Life and Legacy from A to Z , Chicago, 1991.
Hyams, Joe, James Dean: Little Boy Lost , New York, 1992.
McCann, Graham, Rebel Males: Clift, Brando, and Dean , New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1993.
Alexander, Paul, Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean , New York, 1994.
Schroeder, Alan, James Dean , New York, 1994.
Holley, Val, James Dean: The Biography , New York, 1995.
Hofstede, David, James Dean: A Bio-Bibliography , Westport, Connecticut, 1996.
Spoto, Donald, Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean , New York, 1996.
Cohan, Steven, Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties , Bloomington, Indiana, 1997.
Loehr, David, and Joe Bills, The James Dean Collectors Guide , Gas City, Indiana, 1999.
"Portrait de l'acteur en jeune homme," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 66, 1956.
Cole, Clayton, "The Dean Myth," in Films and Filming (London), January 1957.
Dos Passos, John, "The Death of James Dean," in Esquire (New York), October 1958.
Bean, Robin, "Dean, Ten Years After," in Films and Filming (London), October 1965.
Truffaut, François, "James Dean est mort," in L'Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), November 1975.
Thomson, David, "James Dean: Youth in Bold Rebellion," in Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book , edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
de Benedictis, Michel, "James Dean the Rebel: His Cause and Effects," in New Orleans Review (New Orleans), Fall/Winter 1984.
Pettigrew, Terence, "James Dean: The Rebel Saint 30 Years On," in Films and Filming (London), September 1985.
Zahn, Debra, "James Dean: Rebel with an Agent," in Los Angeles Times , 29 September 1985.
Breen, Ed, "James Dean's Indiana: The Stage Along Sand Pike," in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Indianapolis), Fall 1989.
Nall, Adeline (as told to Val Holley), "Grant County's Own," in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Indianapolis), Fall 1989.
Dalton, David, "James Dean: Osiris Rising," in Gadfly (Charlottesville), May 1998.
The James Dean Story , documentary, directed by Robert Altman, 1957.
James Dean: The First American Teenager , documentary, directed by Ray Connolly, 1976.
James Dean , television movie, directed by Robert Butler, 1976.
September 30, 1955 , feature film based on effect of Dean's death on American teens, directed by James Bridges, 1977.
Hollywood: The Rebels—James Dean , documentary, directed by Claudio Masenza, 1985.
Forever James Dean , documentary, directed by Ara Chekmayan, 1988.
Where Have You Been Jimmy Dean? , documentary produced for French television, directed by Dennis Stock, 1991.
James Dean: A Portrait , television documentary, directed by Gary Legon, 1996.
James Dean and Me , television documentary, directed by Ben Strout, 1996.
James Dean at High Speed , documentary on Dean's love of racing, produced by Lee Raskin and Brock Yates, 1997.
James Dean: Race With Destiny , feature film, directed by Mardi Rustam, 1997.
* * *
Ambition and talent took James Dean a very long way in a very short time. In the five-year period between 1950 and 1954, the Indiana farm boy transformed himself into a Hollywood movie star. Then he died. His accidental death at 24 sent the trajectory of his career path into another orbit altogether: through a series of cultural reactions James Dean was transmuted into a dead cult personality and ultimately into a full-blown American icon. While his films may appear dated today, Dean is never passé—neither the actor, the persona, nor the image. As the decades have passed the image has only gotten cooler and hipper; as a pop culture icon James Dean seems to have no expiration date.
In only three film roles Dean presented such a vulnerable image of adolescent alienation that conventional stereotypes of youth and masculinity came tumbling down. He struck a chord in the 1950s, and in each successive decade, with his unique capacity to portray the hero while simultaneously undercutting, questioning, and redefining traditional models of masculinity. James Dean was hero and anti-hero in one appealing package. When Al Pacino said, "I grew up with the Dean thing. Rebel Without a Cause had a very powerful effect on me," Pacino spoke for many of his generation. Dean's emotional and highly idiosyncratic film performances electrified generations of audiences and aspiring actors around the world.
Unknown to film audiences in 1954, Dean appeared to be an "overnight success" in his film debut as Cal Trask in Elia Kazan's production of East of Eden. But behind this exquisitely nuanced screen performance lay Dean's considerable experience in live television and Broadway productions during his "New York years." Rebel Without a Cause was, and still is, Dean's signature film, but his portrayal of the unloved son in East of Eden was virtually a self-portrait. It was not a stretch for Dean to play the son of an emotionally wooden father and an absent mother, for in truth, this was his own biography. Kazan gave the role to Dean not because he could play Cal Trask, but because he was Cal Trask.
Dean's next picture was Rebel Without a Cause , Nicholas Ray's study of middle-class juvenile delinquency seen from the adolescent perspective. Rebel began as a routine B-picture in black and white, but Warner Bros. quickly upgraded it to a CinemaScope A-production when reviews of East of Eden confirmed that they had a star in Dean. As Jim Stark, Dean created an unforgettable image of a confused misfit in rebellion—against his parents, who recoil from personal acts of courage, and against his teenage peers, who act out meaningless rituals of courage. Premiering one month after Dean's death, Rebel was a phenomenal hit with its powerful message and its charismatic dead star. Through this film James Dean entered the cultural imagination as the archetypal rebel hero and he has maintained this eminent position ever since.
For his next and last film Dean accepted a smaller role in an epic-sized picture—George Steven's production of Giant. Dean played a poor, resentful Texas ranch hand who strikes oil, only to become a rich, embittered oil tycoon. Requiring Dean to age about 30 years, the role of Jett Rink had more breadth than depth, but for Dean's introspective style of acting, this was not a good trade-off. He clashed with George Stevens over the interpretation and development of Jett Rink, and ultimately Dean lost his artistic battles with Stevens. But he won the war. By the time Giant premiered in 1956, Dean had been dead a year and Dean delirium had reached a peak. As far as America's teenagers were concerned, Giant starred James Dean in "his" final film. Upon his death, Dean seemed to eclipse the directors of each of his films: their films became known as "James Dean films."
As a pop culture icon Dean has been subjected to a relentless commercial life after death. Commercial exploitation of his image has been so persistent that the public's awareness of Dean's unique acting genius is often overwhelmed by the ready availability of his image. While a number of contemporary critics were quick to label Dean a Marlon Brando imitator, and a poor one at that, Dean eventually escaped Brando's shadow to leave an exceptional acting legacy in his own right. Writing as a film critic in the 1950s, François Truffaut succinctly assessed Dean's impact as an actor: "His acting goes against fifty years of filmmaking. Each gesture, each attitude, each mime, is a slap in the face of tradition." Dean revered Method mentors Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando and like his mentors was admitted to the Actors Studio, but unlike them he was extremely inhibited by Lee Strasberg's criticism and did little work there. Dean was a Method actor more by instinct than by formal training.
Nonetheless, many of Dean's colleagues and acquaintances considered him an "oddball" both professionally and personally. He was certainly a risk-taker. He preferred not to know his lines too well so that his performances would be spontaneous and natural, and he rarely played a scene exactly the same way twice. Dean's unconventional approach to acting—whether on television, the stage, or the screen—often threw his acting colleagues off balance. Raymond Massey, who starred with him in East of Eden , complained that he never knew what Dean was going to say or do. Massey hated this unpredictable quality in Dean's acting style; other actors (such as Julie Harris) were more appreciative and tolerant of Dean's unique approach to his craft. Besides acting, Dean's other consuming passion was sports car racing and he won several amateur races. Both racing and acting were vehicles of risk and exhilaration for Dean. The risks he took in acting paid off: he received Best Actor nominations (posthumously) for his performances in East of Eden and Giant. The tenacity of Dean's cultural impact and personal appeal is confirmed by the enormous quantity of biographies, memoirs, tributes, and documentaries produced during the 45 years since his death. In the 1990s alone, a book was published on Dean in every year of the decade, and almost half a dozen documentaries and films were released. Nor has interest waned: another television documentary ("James Dean: An Invented Life") is soon to go into production once the role of James Dean is cast.
Attempts to resolve the many contradictory facets of the James Dean persona into a single, homogenized, unambiguous icon are misguided. Labels do not fit Dean well. As soon as one is applied, its opposite seems equally appropriate: cool and emotional, masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual, good boy and bad boy, nonconformist and self-indulgent, mixed-up kid and ambitious actor-hustler. Perhaps this ability to accommodate and radiate opposite qualities accounts in some measure for the Dean magic: the visceral power of his screen performances, the magnetism of his image, and the longevity of his legendary status. Or, as Andy Warhol put it: "[James Dean] is not our hero because he was perfect, but because he so perfectly represented the damaged but beautiful soul of his time."
—Cindy Lee Stokes