The lights go down in the cinema, the film begins and the audience sees a young man lying in the street, playing with a wind up monkey toy. He is drunk yet beguiling, a loner yet magnetic. Later in the film the same young man appears on screen, a haunting figure, clashing with the school bully whom he is unable to conform with. Clad in a white t-shirt, denim jeans and a red jacket, a look and attitude that would define a generation are born. The film is Rebel Without a Cause and the man is James Dean.
The actor had already channelled his own intense method of performance in his first feature East of Eden (1955) however his second film, Rebel Without a Cause (also 1955), confirmed him as the icon for the disillusioned generation. His character Jim Stark is a misunderstood youth, unable to communicate his emotions due to a lack of parental guidance. He seeks direction and compassion from his father who is too weak to fulfil his role (due to the overbearing mother of the household) therefore he feels the traditional parental functions have failed him.
He seeks an alternative structure, creating a friendship ‘family’ with fellow social outsiders Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo), whom he becomes an object of attraction for both characters. This echoed the mood of the young audience when, in a decade where sexual repression and puritanical morals were wavering, Dean represented a movie idol that transcended gender admiration. Men and women were both attracted to him, by his character who presented a skewed version of heroism that was against the stereotypical definition of the macho male that cinema had previously upheld, he was the poster boy for post World War II America, where the generational shift had caused young people to question traditional values and lifestyles. As Dean himself experimented sexually with both men and women, this furthered his appeal as a role model for an ambivalent juvenile up rise in America.
James Dean’s look within the film Rebel without a Cause is an extension of his status as an icon of cinema. He transformed the connotations of a pair of Levi 501s from a garment that was utilitarian to one with cultural significance; it was no longer just a practical pair of jeans but one that represented rebellion. Teamed with a simple white t-shirt and a symbolic red jacket, Dean had created a look that would blaze through 50s American cinema and continue to endure, influencing actors for decades to come and creating hundreds of social and fashion wannabe rebels through the years.
The fact that Dean only made three feature films in the most astonishingly brief career of any other movie star who died at the age of 24, cemented his iconic position and immortalised him as the tragic anti hero seen on the big screen, forever in millions of movie goers minds as the lonesome Jim Stark.