Icons of the Century
James Dean brought such a contagious rash of quirks, tics, pauses and eccentricities to his roles that whole succeeding generations of young male actors have been considered at risk — most virulently those who’ve come out of the Actors Studio. He made only three movies, but his style has been so diluted through imitation that it’s almost impossible to describe the meteoric impact he had on his contemporaries and pubescent boomers.
In “East of Eden,” the mere sight of Dean wrapping himself in a pullover atop a freight car headed from Salinas to Monterey was enough to strike the profound chord of restlessness that gripped kids then — Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” came out during the same era. Long before it became clear that Dean was acting out the mythic character of Cain, he personified the miserable ache of formless yearning.
In “Rebel Without a Cause” he exposed the inner life of teen angst made even more piercing because there was no language, no art, no means to express what it felt like to live the juggernaut life of unruly emotion and sexual confusion. In “Giant,” he harnessed the crude, boisterous energies of Texas wildcatters Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson and showed us the giddy rush of sudden wealth.
Nothing indemnifies immortality more than an early death. Dean was 24 when he was killed in a car crash, fixing his image in our irretrievable past. He, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando changed American movies