N EARLY 1955 a 26-year-old photographer named Dennis Stock went to a party at the Los Angeles bungalow of Nicholas Ray, a film director, and was introduced to a 23-year-old actor named James Dean. Dean was a taciturn kid with a sharp chin and hair that stood up off his forehead in parallel lines, like copper wiring. He said he had just worked in a new movie by Elia Kazan. Stock went to see it; it was “East of Eden”, and he was floored. Stock pitched and shot a photo series for LIFE magazine (“Moody New Star”), with Dean slumming about New York and hamming it up on an uncle’s farm in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana. Six months later Dean was the biggest youth idol in the history of American movies, and he was dead.
Sixty years ago today, on September 30th 1955, Dean slammed his Porsche Spyder into an oncoming car in central California. It has since been impossible to look at material from his life without a sense of foreshadowing. In “Rebel Without a Cause”, the movie he made with Ray, Dean’s character takes part in a game of chicken, racing cars towards a cliff edge before jumping out at the last second; the boy he races against dies. In Stock’s photo shoot, Dean poses at the grave of an ancestor whose name, Cal, matches that of the character he played in “East of Eden”. Later, at the local funeral parlour, he jumps into a coffin for a laugh.
Did he have a death wish? Who knows. What we do know is that something about American culture around this time seemed to want him to have one. In the 1950s a huge cohort of teenagers with cash to spend met a culture industry pitching them the message that whatever misbehaviour they wanted to indulge in was the fault of their parents. The needless death of beautiful youth had been a dramatic device for indicting the superficial nonsense of adult society, and endorsing adolescent desire, ever since "Romeo and Juliet". Now teen rebellion had become marketable. James Dean became product number one, and Stock’s photo shoot helped package and sell it.
These troubled boys, rejecting a world corrupted by phony grown-ups—America has never been without them since. Dustin Hoffman (“The Graduate”), Jack Nicholson (“Five Easy Pieces”), Bud Cort (“Harold and Maude”), John Travolta (“Saturday Night Fever”), Matt Dillon (“Over the Edge” and “The Outsiders”), Johnny Depp (“Edward Scissorhands” among other films), Robert Pattinson (who plays Stock in the new movie “LIFE”, based on the photo shoot); it goes on and on. In 1988 Christian Slater turned the tragic teen death cult inside out in “Heathers”, playing a version of Dean’s rebel who actually kills off fellow students in his high school, staging their deaths as suicides for tragic effect. One would think the game was up. Yet a few years later there was Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic”, balanced on the prow like Dean on the windmill in "Giant", before taking his perfect cheekbones to the bottom of the Atlantic in the name of a rebellion against...class barriers, or something. (There’s often a death-risk pose on monumental architecture in these films; it seems to represent the teen sense of mastering the adult infrastructure without taking responsibility for it, holding it at arm's length because of its phoniness and corruption, and then possibly being tragically and photogenically cut down by it.) By the time Mr Pattinson came along as the winsome vampire in “Twilight”, the teenage rebels were starting the movie already dead.
The photos that grab the eye in Stock’s shoot now may be the foreshadowing ones, with their aura of doomed youth. But the more interesting ones are those that have nothing to do with that: the beatnik intellectual shots in New York, the regular kid back home in Indiana. The power of Dean’s performances derives from his intense late-adolescent uncertainty about who he is supposed to be, and you can watch him in these photos trying on different identities for size. Was he desperately unsure of himself? Was he gay? Maybe. Or maybe he was 23 and still figuring it all out. He was young and stupid, he drove too fast, he got killed. Shame.