Rebel Yell

On 30th September, 1955, James Dean was killed in his Porsche and a legend was born. He was twenty four years old. He epitomised a style of acting, along with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. They used The Method to play the anti hero, the loner, the rebel, the troubled soul with a core of vulnerability. They ooze angst but a spoonful of sensitivity sweetens the pot. Perhaps if the right woman came along to smooth their furrowed brow, they could be saved. We love them because they do what we wouldn’t dare. Previous heroes were mostly suave and romantic. The new breed’s real selves and their screen image were inextricably linked. It’s hard to imagine them doing anything mundane. Can you picture James Dean at the supermarket? The cult that grew around them still reverberates today. Some of the portrayals appear mannered now but angst ridden performances from moody young men still strike a chord with modern audiences. You can see the imitations everywhere. Martin Sheen built his early career on it. Hit TV series Beverley Hills 90210 featured Dylan, (Luke Perry), who styled himself on Dean’s image and had the attitude to go with it. Also, the current hit, The OC has a bad boy character called Ryan, (Ben McKenzie), who could brood for the Olympics. But where did it all start? Further back than you probably think. Before disaffected youth was invented in fact. In 1938, audiences were stunned by John Garfield’s performance in Four Daughters. No one had seen anything like the unshaven Garfield before, as he cast his brooding presence, but there was something else. He displayed a sensitivity which other tough guys of the day had not. The persona was born. If we hadn’t had Garfield, we wouldn’t have Ryan, or he would just seem ridiculous because we’d have no point of reference. Garfield didn’t bow down to authority in real life either, having refused to name names in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, he was blacklisted for a while. He died aged just thirty nine. Montgomery Clift emerged in the late 1940’s., bringing a quiet introspection all his own. A certain grace. His off screen life was blighted by addictions and ill health and he died in middle age. Along with Clift, Brando was often described as a beautiful man, and he had the audacity not to die young, and to get fat. Maybe that was his greatest rebellion of all, his refusal to live up to other people’s ideal image of him. The early roles are of course iconic, in which he mumbled his way into legend. The 1950’s will always be known as the decade of Brando and Dean. They asked awkward questions of the American Dream and created their own counter culture. So what of Dean, he idolised both Clift and Brando and was greatly influenced by them. Teenagers who were fighting to emerge from their parent’s authority strongly identified with him. Often that restlessness expressed itself in speed. They had money in their pockets and fast cars in the drive. Dean struggled with authority figures both on and off the set and let off steam by racing. Even when he was out of his contemporary setting, as in Giant and East Of Eden, he still represented the preoccupations of his time. It was his role as Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause, however, that did the most to mythologize Dean. The film sends out a warning to the parents of America. They must somehow connect with their kids or they’ll lose them forever. It was the first film to really explore the generation gap, as it would come to be defined and Dean was dubbed the first American teenager. Dean drew more sympathy than Brando. He always seemed more vulnerable and female fans didn’t know whether they wanted to seduce him or mother him.. There is no more powerful moment as in East Of Eden, when Dean’s character Cal Trask, throws his arms round his Father, played by Raymond Massey and tries to almost physically pull out some love and affection from him, after years of distance. Steinbeck’s story reflected Dean’s own relationship with his father and the author said “James Dean is Cal”. Elvis Presley, as shown in his early roles, was a Dean fan and gave sympathetic performances to characters who’d gone off the rails, in Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker had another agenda. He crushed this promising film career by pushing him into a contract doing endless saccharine films for the family audience. No British actors have had a mention.. Why is that? Could the Brits never get started? Is that reflex of “mustn’t grumble” too inbred, or was it just too hard to rebel, driving a Morris Minor and hanging round the local boozer? There were plenty of teenage delinquent films, often morality tales, but they never featured anyone to rival the Hollywood myth. Cliff Richard made early attempts to emulate the Elvis lip curl but that’s as far as it went. Even British musicals were fluffy in comparison, compare West Side Story with its rival teenage gangs and Summer Holiday. Thousands of fans make the pilgrimage each year, on the anniversary of his death, to James Dean’s home town of Fairmount, Indiana to celebrate the life of the star. Why all this adulation for a career with only three starring film roles? Perhaps because he zipped up the red windcheater that Plato, (Sal Mineo) was wearing after being shot dead by the police, so he wouldn’t get cold. We like our rebels to have a heart.