James Dean shouldn’t still be this big of a deal. Don’t get me wrong, Dean is one of my favorite actors, but he died sixty-two years ago. In an industry that fetishizes the next great actor, it would seem that Dean’s star should have dimmed at least a little by now. He only made three movies. And yet somehow when you walk by a nostalgia shop he’s the image you see in the window. His image has become synonymous with the 1950s in an incredibly broad sense. At a more microscopic level, he has become an icon for both the conservative movie-going public of the period, as well as the lesbian and gay subcultures—at the same time.
NOTE: A larger LGBT community did not come about until after the Stonewall Riots in 1969, which sparked the organization of the Gay Liberation Movement, however, there were precursor gay and lesbian rights organizations founded in the 1950s. The Mattachine Society, the first nationally recognized gay rights organization was founded in 1951, while the first lesbian rights organization (Daughters of Bilitis) was established in 1955, the same year Rebel Without a Cause was released.
Why did James Dean’s cultural importance carry on even though his life was stopped short? His performances and his life outside film contributed to an enigmatic persona that his death cemented. He essentially is the cultural manifestation of the Kuleshov effect. Any meaning you want to place on Dean, it will probably fit. “Rebel Without a Cause” is the perfect way to describe Dean. He may not have explicitly taken up a cause, but many causes have claimed him as their own.
On the psychological front, The University of Illinois conducted a study correlating the length and quality of one’s life to how they are remembered by the public post-mortem. “The James Dean Effect” found that if a person who had a positive impact on the world dies young, it increases that person’s desirability. Conversely, in the case of an elderly person’s death that had a similarly positive impact, their life is perceived as less desirable. This explains in part why Dean lives on in our cultural memory. However, there is a more contrived reason for his post-mortem popularity across cultural boundaries.
Soon after the actor’s death in 1955, two diametrically opposite social groups began claiming Dean as an icon for their respective groups. In the conservative camp, Hedda Hopper, Hollywood gossip mogul, became a self-appointed James Dean archivist. Her end goal was to cement the star as a talented heterosexual martyr, herself benefitting greatly from Dean’s exposure, expanding her gossip empire.
Conversely, Nicholas Ray (director of Rebel Without a Cause) worked to reinforce what gay and lesbian communities had already started by identifying with Dean. Ray, widely believed to be bisexual, had intimate knowledge of Dean’s personal life, and he used his knowledge to legitimize gay and lesbian communities’ claims to the significance of the actor (while still benefitting himself by being associated with the brightest star in Hollywood). Dean’s legacy is underpinned by the fight to commodify his memory.
However, something is lost by attempting to define Dean. Hopper and Ray (among many other individuals) attempted to strip the ambiguity that made up a large part of Dean’s life for their own gain—whether it be socially positive or negative. In doing this, they created a caricature of the star, painting him as all one color or another. While this iconizing of Dean furthered his popularity after death, it stripped him of his greatest character trait: he was an enigma that evoked a little bit of every facet of life.
By October 1955, immediately after Dean’s death, Hedda Hopper attempted to co-opt Dean’s legacy to further her already sprawling gossip empire. Hopper had cultivated an intimate relationship with her readership over her twenty years of Hollywood gossip reporting. Her image as a former film actress (and thus an active and familiar player in the actual process of filmmaking) afforded her a distinct authority in her columns. This authority spilled over into her reporting on Dean.
While her relationship with the actor was superficial at best and artificial at worst, those who devoured her writing took her words as gospel truth. The public assumed her coverage was full of intimate knowledge, but in retrospect, her words only echoed information already released by Warner Bros. about their new young star. However, by packaging the same content in a different way, the information read like a personal memoir. Hopper’s ability to repackage old information is attributed to the conversational tone found in her writing. She achieved this artificial familiarity by dictating her columns instead of writing them longhand or typing them herself.
The studio didn’t mind that Hopper was simply repackaging their press releases for personal gain because they were benefitting from her writing even more than she was. Hopper was basically giving the studio free publicity for Rebel Without a Cause and the future James Dean film Giant. Additionally, the publicity gained by Warner Bros. by way of Hopper’s writing further pushed the hetero-normative narrative wherein the studio wished Dean would quietly abide. The archest version of Hollywood’s James Dean was a young man who subtly rebelled against factors attempting to alter the status quo through racial and gender politics. In his Death, the studio and mainstream Hollywood, in general, were free to push whatever characterization they wished.
The biggest power play made by Warner Bros. in the wake of Dean’s death was the release of a pseudo-documentary about the actor. The James Dean Story promised audiences the “real” James Dean, essentially appointing Warner Bros. as the arbiter of Dean’s canonical life story. Because the Golden Age studio system was still in effect, all of Dean’s films were under the Warner Bros. banner and thus under the control of a single marketing team. This type of vertically integrated monopoly on Dean’s creative life and image heavily affected the mainstream movie-viewing public’s image of Dean—that of a traditionally masculine (albeit extraordinarily sensitive) persona.
In the investigation of James Dean’s post-mortem meaning-making, the question arises: why did mainstream Hollywood go through the trouble of molding his image if they were not going to benefit from the ticket sales of any more James Dean films after 1956? The answer: merchandising. In addition to the run of the mill merchandise of posters, clothing, and fan magazines, more esoteric Dean-associated souvenirs were available such as life-sized busts of Dean coated in a flesh-like plastic. So, if there was a market for that niche product, we can assume the Dean ephemera business was booming. However, not everyone who saw Rebel Without a Cause could be counted in the fold of mainstream Hollywood.
The actor’s features were evocative of a female, while many of his mannerisms were overwrought with masculinity. Because of his blending of traditionally masculine and feminine traits he inspired both effeminate gay males and butch lesbians to accept themselves. And despite the efforts made by the Production Code Administration, Rebel Without a Cause provided the gay and lesbian society (the individuals that would inspire or themselves become the LGBT community) with a queer icon.
Dean’s symbolism to the gay and lesbian communities mimicked the symbolism found in Rebel Without a Cause. In 1955, the studio had difficulty getting a passionate heterosexual kiss by the censors, so anything overtly (and almost anything covertly) homosexual was struck from the script before shooting ever started. The fact that the narrative centered on teenagers made the vetting process even stricter.
Obviously, the biggest issue the censor (Geoffrey Shurlock) had with the film’s narrative was the relationship between Jim (Dean) and Plato (Sal Mineo). Shurlock brought up his worries to the director Nicholas Ray, but when pressed further on his gut feeling the censor relented due to lack of concrete evidence of a homosexual relationship between the two. Shurlock was right of course but the lack of evidence is a testament to how important the homosexual aspect of the plot was to the director.
Ray purposely utilized analogs, and unspoken imagery to communicate the two characters’ story as to not give the censor reason to shut the narrative down. A large portion of the gay community already used symbolism instead of overt language for many reasons, namely the incredible repression of public homosexuality in 1950s America. Thus, these unspoken, inarticulate indications were easily picked up by this subculture, while still leaving the overall narrative up for interpretation by other subcultures (and super-cultures?).
Additionally, and on a more personal character level, Jim’s lack of ability to express himself throughout the film became a proxy for those not yet comfortable expressing themselves in the real world. In this way, Jim acted as a cathartic and somewhat aspirational character to a whole swath of the gay and lesbian subculture still in the closet.
So on both sides of the conservative/progressive border pundits adopted Dean for their own purposes. This was the magic of James Dean: he was something to everyone. And the release of Rebel Without a Cause cemented him as an icon for a multitude of cultures.