Rebel Without a Cause hit US movie theatres in 1955 and a generation of American teenagers flocked to see it. They loved the film but, even more, they loved its star. It was James Dean’s first and only movie as the top billed actor, and he was already dead.
The 24-year-old had been killed in a car crash just three weeks before the film’s release. He was to join that pantheon of actors and singers, Presidents and Princesses who taste fame early, die young, and around whom post-mortem myths, legends and memories are woven. For James Dean, his legend was to be the beautiful, surly anti-hero; the patron saint of disaffected working class American youth, and the epitome of a new kind of cool.
TROUBLE IN A PLAIN WHITE T-SHIRT
James Dean had already made an impact in his previous film, East of Eden, but it is the image of Rebel’s anti-hero, Jim Stark, wearing a white T-Shirt and blue jeans – teamed with a bomber jacket – that first comes to mind when we think of him.
It was an image of masculinity about as far removed from that of Hollywood’s traditional leading men as could be imagined. This was American workwear given star quality; nothing could have been more different to the suave appearance of so many male film stars of the 1930s and 1940s – a look carefully cultivated and fiercely protected by the major studios. Think Cary Grant in a perfectly tailored suit.
James Dean was no Cary Grant. He wasn’t the kind of boy you could bring home to meet your mother. Quite literally: Dean’s relationship with Italian-American actress Pier Angeli lasted barely months after Angeli’s mother decided he was a wholly unsuitable suitor, citing fast cars and his T-Shirt attire as unacceptable traits. (Never get on the wrong side of an Italian mother).