American actor James Dean (1931-1955) leaning against a dressing room trailer with his shirt open to the waist while smoking a cigarette on the set of director George Stevens's film, 'Giant', in which he starred.
James Dean on the set of 'Giant' in 1955

James Dean’s first line on screen as a leading man, in 1955’s East of Eden, was “You want me?” It is impossible to hear that insecurely asked question now and not laugh. It seems there hasn’t been a moment since, when someone – however ineffectively or inaccurately – hasn’t been posing like Dean (Justin Bieber on Instagram last month) or educing him when great actors die before their time ( Philip Seymour Hoffman two months ago) or crash in a fast car (Paul Walker five months ago). A new biopic directed by Anton Corbijn and starring the promising Dane DeHaan is now in production, and the curious pore over the handful of stills drip-fed online. The generations continue to discover Dean, almost 60 years dead but still accepted as adolescent torment incarnate.

The three films in which he had major roles, East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, are being screened this month at London’s BFI Southbank. That a “James Dean Season” never feels like a too-short con is one of the miracles of cinema. Taken together his movies say so much about America and American film you could argue that if you saw nothing but them, you would have a pretty good idea of not only what the form can do but also about the most pivotal questions and figures in American culture.

Can the good guy thrive in modern life? What to do with our youth? What on earth to do with the method – this whole new way of being? Steinbeck, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan. CinemaScope and its stunning Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired access to the horizontal. And the staggeringly prescient direction of Nicholas Ray.

“Even as far back as Rebel Without a Cause,” Ray’s widow Susan once told me, “Nicholas was warning about the dangers of a prolonged adolescence and the over-appeal of technology.” In that movie Dean’s character Jim Stark is unhappy in his unyielding home life and creates a kind of lateral “family” for himself on screen, of friends, muckers and potential lovers. Take that sort of thinking to its logical conclusion and the west can only ever have ended up at Woodstock.

Dean’s mother died of uterine cancer when he was nine and the bespectacled Indiana boy was raised on a farm by his Quaker aunt and uncle. According to his friend William Bast, Dean’s relationship with his real father was “excruciating”, and he was later to confide to Elizabeth Taylor between takes on Giant that he had been sexually abused by a local minister. And yet he was buoyant at school, going on to study drama at UCLA and then at the Actors Studio in New York in 1951, quickly picking up work on television, and by all accounts sensational in his one Broadway play The Immoralist, from Gide, in 1954.

Kazan was tipped off to “go and look at the fella playing some sort of Arab” and marvelled at the young man’s air of fatalism and his agonising commitment. He immediately cast Dean as the confrontational son in his adaptation of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, in which gigantic myths happen to the average American family next door. Dean didn’t remotely mind Kazan putting him in a headlock and bashing him about to wind him up.

Director Nicholas Ray talking to James Dean at the Griffith Park Observatory in between scenes from the film 'Rebel Without A Cause', 1955.
Dean with director Nicholas Ray between filming scenes of 'Rebel Without A Cause', 1955

Dean’s onscreen danger was distinct from that of Marlon Brando, an actor he idolised. Both were dangerous but Dean was that other thing too: adorable. Watch him walk through a meadow of yellow flowers carrying a straw picnic basket in East of Eden. Look at his dimples when he smilingly chews on a plastic cup in the police station in Rebel Without a Cause, or hear his girlish giggle when Natalie Wood says she thinks he is “gentle and sweet” and he can’t work out if it’s a compliment or not. (He didn’t actually have any front teeth; they were knocked out after a fall from a hayloft as a kid. What you see on screen is a bridge.)

So many of Dean’s gestures have passed indelibly into our culture. That febrile way he had of slipping out of someone’s hold, abruptly arching his back, became a favourite Morrissey dance move. And Dean’s off-set behaviour was almost painfully modern. If he were alive today his fans would be relentlessly updated with selfies. Few actors have been more obsessed with photographs of themselves. Hitting the streets with his friend Martin Landau, they would take pictures of each other all day, commemorating the moment. Thousands of these images of Dean exist, crushed into fire escapes or balancing on posts, buttoned into jackets and literally hanging off the back of doors. Dean knew his best side (his left) and that a high collar set off the beauty of his broad neck. He knew his short legs looked better in heavier trousers and understood the detail in his small hands.

Those who wonder, frowningly, what might have become of Dean had he not died at 24, claiming that they could not imagine him playing other parts, should consider two things. He would have made a heart-rending Norman Bates in Psycho (Norman with his picnic basket?). But come 1960, Dean probably wouldn’t have been acting anyway. At the time of his death he was setting up a production company with Ray, aiming to get behind the camera instead. Dean, so new to fame (technically, his onscreen career lasted just a year) had already come to loathe it. As his fan mail increased from 400 to 1,200 letters a week, he panicked about the distracting pressure and how much harder he was having to work to get into a part: “I’m kvetching and pushing and passion-pumping. It’s not coming easy for me.” Before leaving in spring 1955 to film George Stevens’ epic Giant he even tore down his photograph from the wall in the Warner Brothers commissary. “What do they want to do? Kill everyone’s appetite?”

A few months and 875,000ft of film later, he was dead. Pulled from a burning Porsche 550 Spyder on the road to Salinas, with his chest and forehead caved in, his hair shaved back at the temples to make him look like a raddled old drunk for the final scenes in Giant. I’ve always found that detail particularly sad; that he died without his hair, which always looked like it was striving against the weight of the world, rising optimistically from his head like a dream or a speech bubble, and groomed – when he knew the camera was about to be on him – with a pocket-stuffed damp rag rather than a comb.

The BFI’s James Dean season runs from April 18 to May 1,

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