James Dean died 55 years ago this week, killed in a dramatic car wreck east of Paso Robles, Calif., that became the stuff of legend. He was 24 when he died, and he inadvertently managed to take a lot of my generation with him, creating a cultural template for the risks we should take with our own lives. Had he lived, he'd be 80 in February.
I was 13 when I first saw him in the movies, and his films offered me an introductory course in how to be a teenage boy in the 1950s. I saw Rebel Without a Cause half a dozen times, mostly because I was studying James Dean — his moves, his posture, his way of speaking. I began filching cigarettes from my mother's purse, practicing how to flip the butt away when I'd smoked it down to a nub, a casually smooth gesture that was, for me and for legions of other aspiring punks, the essence of cool.
Dean also taught me, and lots of guys like me, that death was cool. We were a fairly death-soaked generation from the get-go, war babies and Cold War children with an emblematic nuclear mushroom clouding our futures. We were diving under our desks from first grade on, and we became consumers of the apocalypse, frightening ourselves with tales of what might lie ahead in movies like On the Beach. And there were books too, doomsday scenarios like A Canticle for Leibowitz, that posited postapocalyptic visions we read as previews of what was to come.
But Dean made dying a little more palatable. We weren't the first or the last generation to be "half in love with easeful Death," but we worked that idea hard and long, with an array of stylistic refinements on the theme that are still sprinkled throughout our culture.
It was no accident that a raft of rock bands emerging after the assassination of President Kennedy took death as their logo, from the Grateful Dead onward, offering fey and weary salutes to the reaper in music stores festooned with photos of Dean and even Marilyn Monroe — two of the prime young sacrifices on death's exalted altar. And there would soon be more, because not long after the Who sang "I hope I die before I get old," Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Mama Cass and Jimi Hendrix chalked themselves up on death's scoreboard.
The parade didn't stop there. The shadow of James Dean has fallen across all of the generations since the 1950s, with dorm rooms still adorned with his image and pop bands still extolling the virtues of death, banging the drum slowly across the genres. Springsteen sang "I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight." Sid Vicious overdosed and left behind a note: "Please bury me next to my baby in my leather jacket, jeans and motorcycle boots." The current crop of young people is obsessed with zombies and vampires in movies and books.
Dean's own death was surely a good career move, allowing him to escape the fate of selling reverse mortgages or diabetes treatments to his fellow geriatrics; allowing him, in our minds at least, to fulfill one of the mantras of my youth: "Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.
It was all bravado in the face of fear. James Dean died for our sins of life-denial. In Rebel Without a Cause, he gave us the template for flaming out. Though his character survived, the central message most of us devotees took from it was that we should take it to the limit and flirt with the edge.
We learned that it was cool to shrug at death, and passed it along. And that may be why the image of James Dean, young and doomed, is everywhere, from Wal-Mart to the Smithsonian, forever encased in youth. It's impossible to imagine Dean at 80, or even at 50. He is, forever and ever amen, a troubled teen in a red jacket, collar up and shoulders hunched, perfect in his rebellion. Against death, against our fear of it.
Jaime O'Neill is a writer in California. © 2010 Los Angeles Times