James Dean, the movie legend, would have turned 90 today, but why do we keep remembering him with only three films?
The beginning and the end of the James Dean legend are very close to each other. The first cinematographic image that we remember of him is, most likely, the automobile competition of ‘ Rebel Without a Cause ‘ (1955). In the mythical film by Nicholas Ray, a group of young people gathered near the astronomical observatory in Los Angeles to bet who was the last to stop before the precipice. The last will be that of a gray-haired, scrawny, mustached actor pretending to be half a century older than his actual age in ‘ Gigante ‘, George Stevens’ oil rivalry odyssey in 1956. In between, and as a bridge between the two, East of Eden ‘, by Elia Kazan that same 1955.
Without being aware of it, three film giants like Nicholas Ray, Elia Kazan and George Stevens managed to capture a legend in three images. The first loomed his death, a car accident at age 24. The second, his image as a movie legend by placing him on top of that rail advance. The third, he showed us old and finished, as we would never see him. Thus a legend was made, the most perfect, by brief and complete, of the cinema.
They say that James Dean left his cat to Elisabeth Taylor in case the career he was going to do was complicated (he died on the way to her). Perhaps that is the gesture that is best for us to get to know the person behind the icon.
In the fifties, the image of the most classic, confident, elegant and talkative gallant was left behind. Brando showed the toughness, Montgomery Clift the depression and Dean the weakness. The insecurity and pessimism of a young man who goes to a race still thinking about who will take care of his cat if he dies in it. In these times, when toxic masculinity is finally being fought openly, we have to keep remembering Dean, the pioneer of masculine sensibility.
Perhaps the James Byron Dean who would have turned 90 today, when he shot out of his Porsche Spyder 550 at a student’s Ford, died on the road. But James Dean, the one in the red jacket, the one on the observatory hill, the one on the roof of the train, the one who cheers in black splashing rain, keeps going.
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