Even today James Dean, 90 years after his birth (February 8, 1931), is the icon of the rebel style par excellence. Let’s retrace the history of a myth, the symbolic face of a generation

His strength, or rather, his damnation, starts from afar. Raised in rural America, James “Jimmy” Dean, after the premature death of his mother, at 9 he approached the theatrical disciplines, a choice that led him to clash hard with his father. Dean, already as a child, had a lot of anger. A pain and suffering (at age 11 he suffered sexual harassment from a Methodist pastor) that he poured into acting. He made his debut with a TV commercial for Pepsi and then, once he moved to New York, he began studying with Lee Strasberg in the Actors Studio. First the TV shows (like Kraft Television), then the telefilms (like The Dark Dark Hours). And above all the theater: it impressed the critics in The Immoralist, staged in Broadway in 1954 (he won the Daniel Blum Award and the Antoinette Perry Award for “Most Promising Young Actor of the Year”).

James Dean and Ursula Andress

© Michael Ochs Archives

His film career was short and intense, like his life. After the very first extras, from 1951 to 1953, all uncredited – The sons of glory (by Samuel Fuller), Beware of the sailors! (by Hal Walker), The latest threat (by Richard Brooks), The capitalist (by Douglas Sirk) e The irresistible Mr. John (by Michael Curtiz) – three films arrived with him in the legend. Between the first – The valley of Eden (1955, by Elia Kazan, where he immediately earned an Oscar nomination for Best Leading Actor) – and the last – The giant (1956, by George Stevens, here the Academy nomination won her as a Supporting Player) – there is that film that has unquestionably made him an eternal icon :, Wasted Youth, direct film in 1955 from Nicholas Ray and produced by Warner. The production house, for the lead role of Jim Stark, initially (it was in the year 1947) thought of Marlon Brando, but the actor who would become famous there The Savage, he refused to devote himself to the theater. Seven years later, the role was then entrusted to the young man James Dean.

Wasted Youth is a film full of crisis and anxiety, and the original title – Rebel Without a Cause (Rebel Without Cause) – is a reference to a 1944 book by the psychiatrist Robert Lidner. Jim’s character became the archetype of the teenage martyr of the 1950s, embodying a new youthful rage. There is no social reason for his unease (his family is rich). His rebellion is personal, existential. James Dean, like cinema, explodes, sinking his boot in the good taste of the bourgeois family and a society in decline. Testimony of the abrupt transition to adulthood and document on the rites of the post-war generation in the US province, Wasted Youth was released in theaters a month after James Dean’s sudden death. It was September 30, 1955, he was only 24 years old.

The power of the film and the shock of his demise transformed Dean’s life and style, even off-set, into a model to follow. Also passionate about motorcycles – he owned a ’55 Triumph Trophy – James Dean left when the youngsters and their anger were starting to be felt. Young, angry East Coast men who couldn’t express themselves. That burnt youth, indomitable and irascible, represented the open wounds of a war that had just ended. They knew that 1950s America wasn’t just Doris Day and Disney: it was full of tensions between parents and children, between workers and entrepreneurs, between whites and blacks. Those new generations, now bourgeois from the economic boom, have armed themselves with leather jackets (Biker Jackets), cowboy boots, convertible cars and knives, to fight against themselves, rather than against an undefined, understanding and worried authority.

Told in the cinema through the face of Dane DeHaan in Life by Anton Corbijn (shot in 2015 and centered around his friendship with Life photographer Dennis Stock, played by Robert Pattinson) and recreated in CGI in Finding Jack by Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh (2020), James Dean will forever remain the symbol of all Rebels: an anti-hero in jeans, an eternal and ethereal star.

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