Dean Becomes a Legend in

The young actor James Dean exemplified troubled youth in Rebel Without a Cause, helping create an iconic figure that rose and grew during the 1950’s and influenced youth culture through at least the 1960’s.

Summary of Event

When Rebel Without a Cause was released on October 29, 1955, at the Astor Theatre in New York, it was not considered to be a major release. Although East of Eden
East of Eden (Kazan) had opened in March of that year to favorable reviews and James Dean generally had been applauded for his performance as Cal Trask, Rebel Without a Cause was considered a B-picture and had no major publicity campaign. Dean had been buried just three weeks previously after a fatal automobile crash. The Warner Bros. studio, which released the film, was leery about it because the death of an actor was not often a stimulus for box-office success. Hollywood studio system;stardom
Rebel Without a Cause (Ray)
[kw]Dean Becomes a Legend in Rebel Without a Cause (Oct. 29, 1955)
[kw]Rebel Without a Cause, Dean Becomes a Legend in (Oct. 29, 1955)
[kw]Legend in Rebel Without a Cause, Dean Becomes a (Oct. 29, 1955)
Hollywood studio system;stardom
Rebel Without a Cause (Ray)
[g]North America;Oct. 29, 1955: Dean Becomes a Legend in Rebel Without a Cause[04990]
[g]United States;Oct. 29, 1955: Dean Becomes a Legend in Rebel Without a Cause[04990]
[c]Motion pictures and video;Oct. 29, 1955: Dean Becomes a Legend in Rebel Without a Cause[04990]
Dean, James
Wood, Natalie
Ray, Nicholas

Natalie Wood and James Dean as Jim Stark and Judy in Rebel Without a Cause.

(Museum of Modern Art, Film Stills Archive)

If a star had been born in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause made Dean a legend. His sudden death only added to his myth. As Jim Stark, the troubled adolescent, Dean embodied the very essence of a rebel without a cause; the phrase became synonymous with Dean.

Rebel Without a Cause is a story of three frustrated teenagers looking for love from families that do not understand them and for identities in a society that demands conformity. Jim Stark and his family must move from town to town because of the trouble Juvenile delinquency the boy gets into. His father and mother constantly bicker, and his father will not stand up and be the man his son needs him to be. Judy (Natalie Wood) desperately seeks acceptance, especially from her repressed father. Failing to find acceptance there, she tries to fit in with the popular high-school crowd. Plato (Sal Mineo Mineo, Sal ), a psychologically damaged boy whose parents are divorced, lives in a big house, alone except for his maid.

Early in the film, Jim is challenged to a “chicken run” by Buzz, Judy’s boyfriend. The challenge is to see who will jump first from his car, as each boy drives a car toward a cliff. Buzz is unable to escape from his car and is killed when it crashes. Jim, Judy, and Plato form a makeshift family of sorts and go to a deserted mansion, but they are pursued by friends of Buzz. The gang and the police chase Plato, who flees into a nearby planetarium. Jim and Judy go after him, and Jim convinces Plato to come out. The police shoot Plato as Jim tries to save him. At the end, Jim’s father and mother seem to have a new understanding of him. He now has Judy and finally belongs to someone.

The film’s plot touched on many of the themes of the 1950’s: conformity, status, middle-class values, the conflict between generations, the conflict between youth and authority, and the search for identity in an insensitive world. Dean brilliantly captured the frustration and insecurity of an individual trying to find himself within that world. He was knowing, confused, and innocent, all at the same time. Rebel Without a Cause is a melodrama and has some flawed sequences, such as the contrived familial understanding at the end, but Dean transcended the form. He infused the formula with originality and passion.

Dean displayed a variety of talents in the film, convincingly portraying a conflicted character. He acted out a range of emotions, kicking and pummeling a desk, reaching out for the fingers of Judy, kissing her sweetly, railing in frustration, kicking a hole in the painting of his mother, calming his friend Plato, laughing absurdly at the sad image of Plato’s mismatched socks, and tenderly zipping up his jacket to warm his dead friend’s body.

Dean’s very inarticulateness was eloquent—it spoke to young audiences everywhere. He was restless, moody, and vulnerable. He was, in a word, youth. One of the ironic things about Dean’s genuine perfomance as a teenager is that he was twenty-four years old when he made Rebel Without a Cause. Age gave his performance an edge that came from experience. Despite his age, his performance embodied adolescence. Dean, like J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, stood for eternal youth. The fact of his death suspended him in time and gave him an eternal identity.

Dean emphasized insecurity, but he also was cool, offering a role model attractive to teens. His performance had flashes of humor, such as when he used the voice of the cartoon character Mr. Magoo in a line of dialogue in the mansion. This was an especially clever touch, because the actor who actually voiced Mr. Magoo in the cartoons was Jim Backus, who played Jim Stark’s father. Surprisingly, his performance in Rebel Without a Cause was the only one of Dean’s performances that did not receive an Academy Award Academy Awards;Best Actor nomination. Dean was nominated for both East of Eden and Giant
Giant (Stevens) (1956), but Ernest Borgnine won for Marty (1955), and Yul Brynner won for The King and I (1956).

Director Nicholas Ray, whose own favorite film was Rebel Without a Cause, was recognized by the French as a leading auteur. He was affirmed for his personality as a socially conscious director who had a distinctive visual style. Ray’s restless camera and vivid color were apt tools for Dean’s sensitivity.

Dean embodied a young man trying to grow into manhood. He did not need a switchblade or a pistol to show his manhood. What is the everlasting appeal of Dean is his humanity—the rebel putting his red jacket on a dead friend and zipping it up, making a gesture of decency in a cold world. The rebel without a cause had a very basic, unspoken cause—to be as human as possible.


If Marlon Brando Brando, Marlon had died at the same age that James Dean died, there would be no Brando films. Brando did not debut on film until The Men (1950), when he was twenty-six years old. That fact places Dean’s death at the age of twenty-four and his accomplishments at that young age in stark perspective. With only three major roles in films, Dean’s unfulfilled potential was incredible.

One can only imagine what Dean might have accomplished if he had lived beyond sixty years of age, as Brando did. It is almost certain that Dean would have directed because of his interest in photography and filmmaking and his creative instincts. One can compare him to Dennis Hopper Hopper, Dennis , who had a minor role in Rebel Without a Cause and who went on to direct such films as Easy Rider (1969) and Colors (1988). Even Brando had a short-lived career as a director. One effect of his brief career is that, starring in only three films, Dean did not make any failures. Each Dean film is precious to his fans.

Dean made a major contribution to the theory of acting called method acting, of which Brando was the most famous proponent. In the Method, one is a personal actor finding oneself in the part and finding the part in oneself. One often hears that an actor is the part he is playing, but with James Dean it was true; James Dean was Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. Despite being identified with youth, Dean also was able to age credibly in Giant, which he made the same year as Rebel Without a Cause, finishing shortly before his death.

Dean’s sudden death in his silver Porsche Spyder as he was driving with his mechanic to take part in a race in Salinas, California, added to his image. His reckless lifestyle—his quest after speed—was his tragic flaw. Fate abruptly ended his quest, and audiences could relate to the glamour and horror of his death. A James Dean cult emerged that rivaled that of Rudolph Valentino after that actor’s death. The adulation of Dean became an enduring phenomenon.

The three films Dean left behind are a remarkable legacy. Cal Trask in East of Eden, Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, and Jett Rink in Giant each was a piece of Dean, but Stark was the most universal. Audiences could identify most with him since they too had gone to high school, grown up in conflicted families, and grappled with identity crises.

After his death, Dean became an icon. He had the nonconformity of John Garfield, the sensitivity of Montgomery Clift, and the smoldering sensuality of Valentino. The camera loved him and transformed him into something special and magical. Each appearance on the screen transformed him into something different from what the people who knew him expected.

Although most people idealized Dean’s image, others—including Brando; Elia Kazan, who directed Dean in East of Eden; and George Stevens, who directed him in Giant—did not view Dean as heroic but as sick, self-pitying, and destructive. That only added to the image, introducing elements of impulsiveness and unpredictability. All over the world, people worshiped his memory and sought relics that were related to him.

One lasting by-product of Rebel Without a Cause was the curious “curse” surrounding the film. Many of its young stars died unnatural deaths: Dean died in an automobile accident, Sal Mineo was murdered, Nick Adams died of a drug overdose, and Natalie Wood drowned. This made Rebel Without a Cause even more provocative.

The myth of James Dean has fascinated filmmakers and critics. After Dean’s death, François Truffaut, a leading French critic and subsequently a major international filmmaker, celebrated Dean, as did the critics of England, Japan, and countries all over the world. At the start of his career, director Robert Altman Altman, Robert codirected the documentary The James Dean Story (1957). After leaving Hollywood, thirty years later he directed Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Ed Graczyk’s play about mythmaking and illusion. The play failed, but Altman got some rave reviews for his 1982 film version. September 30, 1955 (1978) commemorates the date of Dean’s death, offering a fictional account of Dean’s mystique and his fans’ reactions to his death.

James Dean is an American myth made in the 1950’s but reaching out to other times and places. Reared in Fairmount, Indiana, educated in theater in Santa Monica, California, trained on the stage in New York City, successful in Hollywood, and buried in Fairmount, Dean was of the Midwest, the East, and the West. His career was brief, but his myth is vast.

Rebel Without a Cause focuses on the social problems of the 1950’s, but it also captures the universal human condition. It is about youth, but it also is about lack of communication, a theme relevant to all times, places, and people. What makes Dean’s myth enduring is his mystery. He was many things to many people. His deceptive age, his neurosis, and his moodiness gave his image an endless, fascinating ambivalence. Hollywood studio system;stardom
Rebel Without a Cause (Ray)

Further Reading

  • Adams, Leith, and Keith Burns, ed. James Dean: Behind the Scenes. Secaucus, N.Y.: Carol, 1990. Contains photographs from original negatives in the Warner Bros. Archives of the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, still photographs from Dean’s three films, plus some photos that Dean took himself. Adulatory introduction by Dennis Hopper, who shares advice Dean gave to him about acting. More personal than factual.
  • Dalton, David. James Dean, the Mutant King: A Biography. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1974. Treats Dean as a cult figure, comparing him to Osiris. Cites other cult figures, such as Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, who were influenced by Dean. Uses sources as dissimilar as French cineast André Bazin and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Sometimes contrived, sometimes overwrought, but often thought-provoking.
  • Herdon, Venable. James Dean: A Short Life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974. An intelligent book that transcends the traps of most movie-star biographies, although one sop to movie fans is the inclusion of an astrological reading of Dean. Generally, Herndon’s tone adds to his credibility. He studies both the myth and the factual reality of James Dean.
  • Howlett, John. James Dean: A Biography. Rev. and updated ed. London: Plexus, 2005. Based on extensive interviews with Dean’s fellow actors and the directors who worked with him.
  • Stock, Dennis. James Dean Revisited. New York: Viking Press, 1978. Photos taken by a friend of James Dean on assignment from Life magazine. Includes an unpretentious introducton by Stock. Thematic photos include austere images of Dean as an Indiana farm boy and a haunting photo of the live Dean sitting in a coffin.
  • Vineberg, Steve. Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style. New York: Schirmer, 1991. A study of how the Method style was a foundation of American acting. Vineberg connects Dean to a Freudian sensibility and discusses why Dean’s style affected teenagers. Relates Dean to Montgomery Clift, John Garfield, and Marlon Brando.

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