The cinematic male lead would never be the same after Dean appeared on the screen.
Sixty years ago, on September 30, 1955, on a lonely stretch of two-lane highway in Northern California, James Dean was killed in a head-on collision. The Porsche Spyder 550 he was driving slammed into a Ford sedan when its driver did not see Dean coming and made a left-hand turn in front of him. In the violent wreck, Dean’s neck was broken. He died on impact. He was 24 years old.
At the time, Dean had made three pictures, but only East of Eden, Elia Kazan’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, had been released. In a flood of gushing reviews, critics singled out Dean for his career-making performance as the emotive, evil brother in Steinbeck’s retelling of the Cain and Abel myth. The death of the rising young star made headlines nationwide. Hedda Hopper summed up the sentiment in Hollywood when she wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “I’m still reeling from the death of James Dean, one of the greatest acting talents I’ve ever known.”
Not a month later, Rebel Without a Cause was released, and audiences lined up to see Nicholas Ray’s drama about troubled youth in America. Dean may have just died, but suddenly there he was—alive on movie screens across the country. No one could have predicted the response of the audience. Instead of being repulsed by the idea of watching a dead actor on the screen, audiences were moved by Dean’s portrayal of Jim Stark. Many could identify with the misunderstood teenager who copes with his pain by hiding behind a “cool” façade.
Soon a myth formed around Dean. That myth was only enhanced in October 1956 when his final picture, Giant, came out. In George Stevens’s adaptation of Edna Ferber’s epic novel about the Texas rich, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, Dean plays Jett Rink, the “poor relation” shunned by the picture’s well-to-do family only then to be dismissed as nouveau riche after he strikes oil and gets rich. His transformation from silent cowboy to brooding, alcoholic oil baron earned Dean an Academy Award nomination. He had also been nominated for East of Eden, making him the only actor ever to receive two posthumous Academy Award nominations…
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