Why Do People Still Care About James Dean?



Life, an upcoming biopic about James Dean’s friendship with Life photographer Dennis Stock, is set to be directed by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn. The project will chronicle the Dean and Stock’s unlikely connection, their cross-country road trip, and Stock’s career beginnings in photographing the young star.

Perhaps it will also answer a question I sometimes think about: Why the hell do people care so much about James Dean?

East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant are, no doubt, film classics. Dean earned posthumous Oscar nominations for Eden and Giant, and he was certainly a great-looking 24-year-old whose urgent acting style was new and influential, like Marlon Brando’s. But it’s bizarre that James Dean’s star still seems to outshine other matinee idols of the time like James Stewart, Gene Kelly, William Holden, or even Brando because James Dean died before he became excellent. In all of Dean’s work there’s a mixture of toughness and vulnerability, but his deliberately affectless style is so affected that his performances are actually more dated than those of his contemporaries. That doesn’t stop 19-year-old sorority presidents in 2013 from hanging posters of Dean in their dorm rooms — nor should it — but it does make you wonder what the big deal is, or continues to be.

At this point, though the two have sincerely nothing in common, James Dean is the male Audrey Hepburn: merely an iconic photographic presence who is remembered as an archetype, even if his work was sometimes award-worthy. I’d love to meet a single college-aged person who owns a James Dean poster and has sat through Giant. Because that is an insanely long, dry movie that doesn’t hold up nearly as well as, say, Rear Window or Singin’ in the Rain. In the age of My Week With Marilyn, a movie that celebrated the mere idea of Marilyn Monroe, it seems we’re celebrating stars of yore for representing exactly what we see of them at Madame Tussaud’s: a single costume, a single sinister glance, and wordlessness. Nothing wrong with iconography, but iconography doesn’t change. Almost 60 years later, James Dean is still a squinty teenage hoodlum with a jacket. He’s a movie idol for people who don’t really care about movies. What is there left to discuss?

Maybe Corbijn will prove there’s more to mine, but I’m honestly more interested in revisiting Dean’s onetime love Pier Angeli, who went on to marry Vic Damone and fall into ruin. Have you seen Sodom and Gomorrah? Interesting stuff.

What say you? Is Dean interesting still?