How does a person become a legend? Some say legends die young, but do they die young because they’re legends or are they legends because they died young? When it comes to James Dean, for example, there’s no denying that his untimely death is part of what has cemented him as a cultural icon. Prior to his death, the only film he had released was East of Eden which did moderately well. His most famous film Rebel Without A Cause premiered a mere three weeks after his tragic automobile accident. Immediately after the crash, a staggering 800,000 tickets were sold for the new film (this was a lot, back then). There’s something about the idea of an artist’s death, especially when it’s tragically young, that can ignite public interest and sympathy.
But it wasn’t just his tragic death that cemented his legacy. Let’s take a look at why James Dean became the pop culture icon that he still remains to this day.
Rebel Without A Cause
There’s no doubt that this is the most influential and popular film of that era. Part of the reason this film resonated so much with viewers was a combination of the tragic timing and the message behind the film. Rebel Without a Cause examines youth in a post-war society, which aligned with where citizens were in the 1950’s. It had strong themes of the combination of youth and death, which aligned with an almost haunting accuracy with the tragedy of James Dean’s own passing.
Changing Teen’s Roles in Society
Another major influence that Rebel Without a Cause had on society is through the American youth. In modern day society, it’s difficult to think a film could cause a whole cultural shift, but this is exactly what happened. Prior to this film’s release, teenagers didn’t exist as a separate entity or culture from adulthood. Adults would set the styles and trends for clothing, music, and pop culture. James Dean’s performance in Rebel Without A Cause caused a shift in society where suddenly teenagers were their own separate entity- different interests, opinions, fashion choices than that of the adult population. Suddenly, they were in charge of what was perceived as “cool”- not adults. Though teenage rebellion existed prior to this film, it was now fully embraced by society in every aspect. It was now something to be proud of and teenagers around the world adopted Dean’s clothing, hairstyle, and mannerisms as a rebellion of their own.
Changing Male Roles and Masculinity
It’s hard to think of this seemingly manly boy causing a stark shift in the way masculinity was perceived, but at the time he made a large impact. Prior to James Dean’s performances in his films, male characters weren’t dynamic. They wouldn’t show emotion like female characters on screen, their performances mainly consisted of a stoic masculinity. That is until Dean came along. He portrayed characters with a distinct softness in his voice. He displayed great sadness and frustration and vulnerability in ways that a man had never previously done on screen.
Creating A Type of Acting
Though Dean has been categorized as a rebel by all of society through his role, the truth was he really wasn’t one. Those who knew him in life have stated that he wasn’t really interested in stirring up the use or changing the world in any drastic manner.
So, why does society characterize Dean this way? Well, the truth is, he was just a remarkably convincing actor. His acting performance differed from the more scripted performances of the time period. In an interview with Shortlist, journalist Ray Connolly, who directed a documentary on James Dean in 1975, states in regard to Dean’s acting, “All the films I had seen before then were based around people reading lines, as in a play onstage. Suddenly, these people — James Dean and Julie Harris — seemed to be saying things that they were making up as they went along. Now, I know that’s called improv these days, but back then I just thought, ‘Gosh, this is so realistic.’ It was the first time I’d seen anything like it.”
It’s hard to say if James Dean would’ve become a legend if he didn’t pass away in 1955. What we do know is that he has had an enormous influence on so many parts of society: on fashion, acting, masculinity, and teenage rebellion itself. And his influence is still strong in our society to this day. It’s not important how he became a legend, just that he is one. And legends never die.