Before there was Rob Lowe, Jared Leto, Johnny Depp, N’Sync, or even (ugh) One Direction populating the brains of teenage girls there was one who I actually understand the appeal: Mr. James Dean. True, he and Elvis timeline-wise are neck and neck for the title of the “first” Teen Heartthrob, but my heart will stay firmly planted in James Dean’s corner. Sure he only made three feature-films throughout the course of his career, but oh what films they were.
While you have (of course) East of Eden and Giant coming in as not only two movie classics- they also made Dean the only actor in history to receive two posthumous Academy Award nominations. Finally there is Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. Living, breathing proof that vulnerability, parental disapproval, and a cigarette hanging out the corner of your mouth will make us love you.
Rebel Without a Cause tugs at my heartstrings for many reasons. For one it was the first film to point out adolescent discord and distress even when you come from a seemingly normal, “healthy” family. There’s something about James Dean in this film that makes me feel like we’re all together in our inevitable loneliness. We all want to feel alive, but never really seem to.
Naturally my reasons for swooning over Dean in the film are not 100% philosophical. James Dean is beautiful, plain and simple. The soulful eyes, the pouty lips, I’ve never been such a “beauty is on the outside” kind of girl than when I’m looking James Dean.
The most heart-breaking thing is that this film (the one that would’ve made his already thriving career burst through the stratosphere) was released about a month after he died in a car crash while racing his Porsche Spyder, “Little Bastard”. Things that normally would be charming and heart thumping all of a sudden became heart breaking. Judy taking the backwards cigarette out of his mouth, Jim giving Plato his jacket, Judy and Jim kissing on the floor by candlelight, Jim racing his car towards the edge of a cliff- all became cruel reminders that this beautiful, soulful guy was no more.
There’s something kind of sad about the people they consider heartthrobs today. They’re all very glossy but don’t exude any kind of substance. James Dean exuded such spirit and heart and just happened to have very pretty packaging. I think that’s the reason while even though he only had mere hours of screen time in his career he’s stood the test of time against people who made dozens of films. He was heart-breakingly beautiful but it was his soul that’s burned him into our brains for decades.
James Dean- you’re tearing me apart.