Sixty years ago yesterday, on September 30, 1955, Hollywood icon James Dean was killed after crashing his Porsche on a rural stretch of central California road. He was only 24 years old and had just finished working on the film, Giant. However, his career was incredibly short; his premature death in that horrific wreck on this day catapulted him into the status of legend. He became the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and remains the only actor to have had two posthumous acting nominations. James Dean would have been 84 if he were still with us today.
James Dean was born at the Seven Gables apartment house at the corner of 4th Street and McClure Street in Marion, Indiana, the son of Winton Dean (January 17, 1907 – February 21, 1995) and Mildred Marie Wilson (September 15, 1910 – July 14, 1940). His parents were of mostly English ancestry, with smaller amounts of Scottish, German, Irish and Welsh. Six years after his father had left farming to become a dental technician, Dean and his family moved to Santa Monica, California. He was enrolled at Brentwood Public School in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles but transferred soon afterward to the McKinley Elementary school. The family spent several years there, and by all accounts, young Dean was very close to his mother. Sadly, his mother died when he was still a young boy.
Unable to care for his son, Dean’s father sent him to live with his sister Ortense and her husband, Marcus Winslow, where he grew up on a farm in Fairmount, Indiana, in a Quaker household.
James Dean began acting and attended the Actors’ Studio in New York to study method acting under Lee Strasberg. He appeared on stage and television before getting his big break when he landed the starring role of Cal Traskin in the 1955 film, East of Eden. This was the only film starring Dean that he would see released in his lifetime.
James Dean quickly followed up his role in East of Eden with a starring role as Jim Stark in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, which his performance as a sensitive, troubled youth earned him nationwide celebrity. Rebel Without a Cause has been cited as an accurate representation of teenage angst.
The last film James Dean acted in was Giant, which was posthumously released in 1956. He played Jett Rink, a Texan ranch hand who strikes oil and becomes wealthy. His role was notable in that, in order to portray an older version of his character in the film’s later scenes, Dean dyed his hair gray and shaved some of it off to give himself a receding hairline. Dean received his second posthumous Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his role in Giant at the 29th Academy Awards in 1957 for films released in 1956.
Today, James Dean is a symbol of youthful rebellion and is often considered an icon in pop culture because of his “experimental” take on life, which included his ambivalent sexuality. There have been several claims that Dean had sexual relationships with both men and women. When questioned about his sexual orientation, he is reported to have said, “No, I am not a homosexual. But I’m also not going to go through life with one hand tied behind my back.”
In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked him the 17th best male movie star on their AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars list.
R.I.P. James Dean!
By Shamarie Knight, 1st Oct 2015