On 18th July here in Moscow we organised a Tribute Concert to a real Legend. It was to an American icon who was not even a rock’n’roll performer, but whose legacy and image were perhaps more important to 1950s rock’n’roll youth culture than anyone else.
His name was James Dean. He appeared in a few Hollywood films in the early 1950s, but he hit mega-stardom with his performances in his last 3 movies, “East of Eden”, “Rebel without a Cause” and “Giant”. It was above all Rebel without a Cause, released in 1955, which really established him as the quintessential teenage rebel.
We booked the famous Russian rock’n’roll band the Great Pretenders to perform for us on 18th July at the Esse Café in Moscow. Readers of this column will know how big they are in Russian rock’n’roll. We had a great concert and a fitting tribute to the original Rebel. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the Event.
Those of us who grew up with rock’n’roll can testify to the personal impact of Dean and not just on those who were teenagers in the 1950s. My teenage years came later, but I can still remember the Dean image that we all tried, in our different ways, to cultivate. John Lennon once famously said, “without Jimmy Dean the Beatles would never have existed”. Martin Sheen described his legacy for young people, “Marlon Brando changed the way actors acted. James Dean changed the way people lived”.
Above all it was Dean’s persona as the ultimate rebel, for example in terms of the generation gap between parents and teenagers, that transformed him into a legend. This theme was in evidence in the movie East of Eden but it was Rebel without a Cause that was the defining moment of his acting career. In viewing the film, one always needs to judge it according to the time it was made. By today’s standards, the dialogue and story line might seem tame, but not in 1955. It was revolutionary, in that it covered themes hitherto not dealt with in films. It’s coverage of the generational conflict between teenagers and parents was ground breaking for its time and it turned Dean into a hero and role model for young people in America and the Western World generally. It dealt with the need to prove oneself to one’s peers (in this case a teenage gang) and Dean’s character in the movie went through a “test” to prove he was no coward. The romantic angle is covered of course, with the famous Natalie Wood playing the female role opposite Dean.
I won’t go into any more detail about the plot of the movie itself, since many of you have seen it already. Those that haven’t can view it on youtube. Dean’s charisma and personality shine throughout the film, in a way that make it hard to think of any other actor with such a powerful on-screen presence. From the time of its release, teenagers started to identify with Dean. Add to this the explosive mix of rock’n’roll music, which came onto the scene at about the same time and you can imagine the tremendous effect it had on American and Western society.
The genesis of the idea for the film came from the director Nicholas Ray. He wanted to make a movie about the teenage social rebellion taking place at that time and to show it was not just a small minority of under-privileged youth involved. His movie demonstrated that this rebellious permeated all classes of society, including within middle class families. Ray recognised that an authentic film on this subject would need to have lots of input from teenagers themselves. He therefore gave a lot free rein to the teenage actors in the movie, to come up with ideas, concepts, etc., that could be used in the picture. Above all he used Dean in this way, someone who really was an authentic youth rebel. Dean, although only 24 years old at the time, was encouraged by Ray to take on the role of an unofficial co-director of the movie and this factor was one of the key elements that made it such an exponential success.
Plus there were lots of spicy details happening off-screen as well as on. Natalie Wood, then only 16, was having an affair with the 44 year old Ray. Wood and Dean were both definitely attracted to each other, but Wood’s affair with the director prevented it going too far. Dean’s most important romantic relationship had occurred earlier, in the early 1950s, when he dated the Italian actress Pier Angeli. She was the love of his life and Dean wanted to marry her. But the movie studio MGM brought heavy pressure to bear on him not to do so, on the grounds that it would have a negative effect on his film star image. After he advised Pier of this, Dean then went to New York for some acting work and it was there he read in the newspapers that she had announced she was going to marry the famous singer Vic Damone. The whole affair had a big negative impact on Dean. And Angeli’s story is not a happy one: She had another failed marriage after the one with Damone ended and she committed suicide, by taking a drug overdose in 1971 at the age of 39. Three years before she died, she made public that the main reason for her unhappiness was the ending of her relationship with Dean: “He is the only man I ever loved deeply as a woman should love a man. I never loved either of my husbands the way I loved Jimmy.”
Dean lived a socially wild life off-screen. His behaviour was erratic, he loved fast cars and generally lived life on the edge. This of course only endeared him even more to his young fans. The actor Paul Lucas who worked with him, at the time said “this son of a bitch is absolutely crazy”. Another who knew him in the 1950s, Dennis Stock, described him thus, “he lived like a stray animal. Come to think of it he was a stray animal.”
One of his favourite quotes was “to me the only success, the only greatness, is immortality”. And, already a legend, his final act secured his immortality in the memory of future generations of fans. He was a huge car racing enthusiast and had a reputation for driving “on the edge”. He accepted the risks of driving in this way and when discussing the possibility of a fatal crash, responded with “what better way to die ? It’s fast and clean and you go out in a blaze of glory.” He also had a premonition that he would die before he was 30. His credo was “live fast, die young.”
In September 1955, driving to a car racing event in California, Dean was again speeding and ignored a red light. He crashed into another vehicle and was killed almost instantly. He was only 24 years old. The manner of his death only added to his iconic status amongst his young fans. He achieved a kind of “martyrdom” in death: He lived and died in the life style that so many of the youth at that time and in later generations aspired to.
Many films and records were made about him over the years after his death and his legend still lives on. As time passed, some stories stated about his personal life were the opposite of his sexual image, but regardless of whether some of them were true or not, it is unquestioned that his legacy to the rock’n’roll generation was huge. As Andy Warhol famously described him, “it might be innocence struggling with experience, youth with age, or man with his image. But in every aspect his struggle was a mirror to a generation of rebels without a cause.”