James Dean starred in just three major movies, more than half a century ago. But he remains one of American culture’s most enduring icons.
James Dean starred in just three major movies, more than half a century ago. But his presence was so magnetic, his skill so unique, that he remains one of American culture’s most enduring icons. “Rebel Without a Cause” is still a classic of teen angst, and “East of Eden” and “Giant” are remembered as masterpieces.
And decades after his death Sept. 30, 1955, Dean continues to make appearances in pop culture, perpetually young and handsome in our memory as he finds his way into songs, movies, and more.
Music. Dean has been name-checked in dozens of pop and rock songs, including a few that are all about him: “James Dean” by the Eagles, “Come Back Jimmy Dean” by Bette Midler, and “Jim Dean of Indiana” by Phil Ochs, to name a few. And his name comes up in even more. In Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Dean is sandwiched between Einstein and “Brooklyn’s got a winning team.” In “Rather Die Young,” Beyonce tells her dangerous crush, “You’re my James Dean.” Lady Gaga’s “Speechless” refers to an ex’s “James Dean glossy eyes.” John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” has young Jack scratching his head and doing “his best James Dean” to impress Diane with his cool. And that’s just a scratch on the surface of songs referencing Dean.
Television. Just as Dean is mentioned in song, he comes up in conversation on TV shows as well. Fonzie, the resident rebel on “Happy Days,” had a photo of Dean in his closet next to his mirror, the better to emulate his idol. Liberty of “Degrassi: The Next Generation” says rebellious Sean is like James Dean. “Queer As Folk” memorialized Dean along with Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix: “They’re all legends. They’ll always be young, and they will always be beautiful.” (A particularly appropriate show for a Dean namecheck, perhaps — he reportedly was bisexual and had several relationships with men.)
Movies. Not just Dean’s own movies showcase his unforgettable face and rebellious reputation. In Stockard Channing’s glorious romp “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” from “Grease,” a photo of Dean appears in the backdrop alongside teen idols Troy Donohue and Elvis Presley. But for the true James Dean fan, the movie to watch is 2001’s “James Dean,” starring James Franco, who does a startlingly good job of capturing both the look and the attitude of the man he portrays.
And More. Dean is still everywhere: books (“Homeward Bound” imagines an alternate reality in which Dean lived past 24), postage stamps, posters gracing many a room beyond Rizzo’s and Fonzie’s, movie stills and publicity photos in 1950s-themed diners across America, and so much more. Dean is one rebel who truly endures.