Dean, James (1931–1955)

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James Dean (1931–1955)

In his all-too-brief life—he was just twenty-four when he died in a crash of his stylish Porsche automobile—actor James Dean came to symbolize middle-class adolescent alienation, 1950s-style. After appearing briefly on Broadway (see entry under 1900s—Film and Theater in volume 1) and television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) and playing bit parts in several films, Dean starred in three motion pictures: East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Giant (1956), earning Best Actor Academy Award nominations for the first and last. In each, he was the personification (human representation) of the anxious American youth of the mid-1950s. He was cast as a brooding, vulnerable adolescent whose presence was unsettling during what otherwise was an era of prosperity and conformity (acting in agreement with established social views) after World War II (1939–45).

Dean's stardom lasted a little over a year. His time in the limelight was as strikingly brief as any major star in motion-picture history. His early death, coupled with his unfulfilled potential, immediately transformed him into an American cultural icon, a symbol of American culture—a status that continues into the twenty-first century.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Gilmore, John. Live Fast—Die Young: Remembering the Short Life ofJames Dean. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1997. The Official Web Site. (accessed March 5, 2002).

Riese, Randall. The Unabridged James Dean: His Life and Legacy from A to Z. Chicago: Contemporary, 1991.

Schroeder, Alan. James Dean. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.