Being cool is an essence, an attitude. For a natural, it comes effortlessly. Coolness can pass at face value through an image or simple witty, well-delivered phrase. But true coolness leaves a lasting impression, an enduring reputation. A paramount personification of this true spirit comes through in what can be defined as being James Dean Cool.
Before more modern, hip, and popular male Hollywood stars such as Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp, and Brad Pitt, there was James Dean. The young actor set a popular look, along with an emulated attitude, in the mid 1950s era in trailblazing fashion. His most popularly known film, Rebel Without A Cause, sparked a fire for a voice in favor of a disenfranchised teenaged youth.
Dean’s influence, magnetism, and charisma has lasted for generations. Not only has his reputation endured since its inception, it has become what many would classify as legendary.
Even though he had only 3 films under his belt, James Dean has gone down in American history as a major trendsetter. Setting trends is one character attribute of being cool. But what else encapsulates coolness? Let’s explore the traits of being cool and how Dean’s character paralleled them; not only on screen, but in his life and consequently into the culture.
Often people perceived as cool have complex, sometimes dark, experiences that put them ahead of the curve of the average person’s experience. They gain a broader scope of the human dynamic and capabilities of others and their own self-awareness. They’re able to adapt to a plethora of personalities. Cool people have a knack for fitting in wherever they go. It would seem natural then, why actors are associated with cool.
James Dean had a bit of an abnormal upbringing. He was born on February 8th, 1931 in Marion, Indiana, but went back and forth between there and the Santa Monica, California area. He would end up with an untimely separation from his parents in two very different but related reasons while residing on the West Coast.
Unfortunately, he had to deal with losing his mother to uterine cancer when he was 9 years old. Afterwards, James was sent by his father to live back with his aunt and uncle in Indiana. Adding insult to injury, his father, not being able to care for James, would be sent into World War II. His father would eventually make a return into James’s life. In dread, his mother never again could.
According to all accounts, he was very close to his mother and felt that she was the only person capable of understanding him. Apparently, James was complex from and early age and had a hard time truly relating to most of the people he knew.
Grandiose characters are usually kept within the range of their limited thinking family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Stepping or being outside the bounds of other’s understandings and perceptions can make them feel or be seen as a pariah. Others don’t believe in a grandiose character’s potential. Simply stated, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” – Jesus of Nazareth
I confidently theorize that his mother’s intuition was in sync and fully supportive of his strong-willed character and nature. A woman’s insight and accommodating belief, would later become a reason for James Deans ability to free men in stoic stagnation of expression and learning to loosen up.
During his time at his aunt and uncles’, James befriended a Methodist pastor, Rev. James DeWeerd. The reverend’s council had a mix bag of influences on Dean that have been accredited to his future acting interests all the way to alleged sexual relations or possible abuse.
James didn’t become an outcast or loner like many would have through these extreme experiences (whether by choice or being an outcast). He was actually a popular school student, participated in both baseball and basketball varsity sports in high school. And at no surprise, studied drama. After he graduated from high school in Indiana he moved back to California to live with his father and stepmother.
Dean was rich in experience from an early age. His family life was complicated and paired with some intense sexual allegations. On the surface, experiencing both Midwest simple living and the high energetic nature of the California coast scene, his life was interesting from a young age and it was just getting started…
People that exude a cool personality take life up a notch in everything that they do. They demand a higher level of life experiences and pursue those desires. An intrepid, perhaps at times volatile nature, is incorporated into their lifestyle. Today, extreme sport enthusiasts are wowed by the athletes they follow and often aspire to. These extreme sportsmen are commonly classified as adrenaline junkies.
Travis Pastrana (motocross professional), Tony Hawk (pro skateboarder), and Shaun White (pro snowboarder, musician, gold medalist) all would be considered cool role models to anyone familiar with these extreme sport professionals. Adventurous risk-taking is par for the course for them and other’s that fit their mold.
In his time, far before extreme sports came about, James Dean was already a practitioner. Despite the sexual allegation bestowed upon Dean with or by Rev. Deweerd, the pastor introduced him to some exciting hobbies that would help mold the actor’s image the public would come to know. These extreme hobbies included race car driving and bullfighting.
James was also known to ride his motorcycle all around. Motorcyclists were thought of as rebels and trouble makers; especially back in the ’50s. Dean’s image, which regularly consisted of a T-shirt, leather jacket, and him cruising along on a steel-horse, had him viewed as a bad boy. Add his extreme hobbies, and it was clear he not only had the look, but played the part.
Those classified as being cool have a reputation for breaking all the rules. It goes hand in hand with a bad boy image. Though It’s not a requirement to be seen as a rebel in the definition of, but by default they usually come off as being pretty cool. Not only do these mischievous spirits not play by the book, they have fun dissenting from the norm.
Many people wish that they could follow through with a hard, “I don’t care attitude!” And that is just what these mavericks do. Defying doctrine and breaking the status quo is a practiced pastime. Cool people have a habit of causing chaos. And if they’re not the initiator, somehow chaos finds a way to them.
As the leading role in Rebel Without A Cause, Dean’s iconic moody, complex, angst-ridden demeanor empowered the teenage voice of a disaffected youth; giving them more relevance in their thoughts and ideas. James Dean, by the power of his on-screen performance, reached an audience and would invoke this chaos within the young teenaged generation of the ’50s.
It wasn’t just on screen that Dean was rebellious and choosing to break the status quo. Against his father’s wishes, James changed his major in college from Pre-Law to Drama. His father was so upset at what was considered throwing a life opportunity away, that the two once again became estranged.
Eventually, James would drop out of UCLA to pursue acting full-time and follow his dreams. James Dean refused to be a cookie-cutter white-boy, dismissed the social norms, and took his own lead.
Cool people tend to be trendsetters. Their carefree attitude, risk taking, and strong character all come together to inspire others. By way of their individuality, they are able to tap into the psyche of those that feel misunderstood; by their peers, by their parents. Those who just want to be more also fall under the charm of these trailblazing souls.
The power of trendsetters works along both sides of the sexes. Along with masculine archetypes, such as James Dean’s, this has also been done with the power of women on screen in the ’50s. Marilyn Monroe may have been for women what James was for men in that era (And both still to a respectable degree today!).
James Dean created a template for the youth, and many following generations, to emulate. By way of his on-screen portrayal, he redefined masculinity; making it acceptable for a strong man to display emotion. The power of his charisma and magnetism made him appealing to people of all ages and sexes.
He was said to be able to identify with his audience. This formed a unique relationship with them that transcended from James being just an on-screen actor to a symbol of male and teenaged American idealism. Not even being a musician, Dean is accredited to have a singular influence on the development and attitude of rock and roll music!
Elvis Presley is known to have studied James Dean and blend his character into his own persona. Elvis took a fancy to Dean’s defiant attitude, effortless cool, and eroticized the rebel archetype. This becomes even more clear upon paying attention to Presley’s music, image, and on stage performances.
Other musicians and rock artists who have admitted to James Dean being a huge influence on them are Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Buddy Holly. The alternative rock band Goo Goo Dolls have a song called James Dean, where the song lyrics state, “I just want to be James Dean.”
The Rebel Without A Cause star set the bar pretty high in the standard definition of coolness. Looking at the big names of the past and of the ones today, we see that measurement is still set and relevant.
Have A Cause
James Dean was the first iconic figure of youthful rebellion. He had the look, the attitude, and the fast-paced lifestyle that added to his allure and essence of cool. His tragic untimely death added to his appeal. So it is with those on a path of greatness cut-off too soon. People wonder what may have become of them…
While it is fine to be inspired and influenced by others, what is really cool is doing your own thing. That seems to be the biggest factor in what made James Dean cool. Not all of us may have his talents, genes, or character, but we can work with what we have to propel our lives forward.
The person that we strive to be and purpose that we seek should be from our own spirit and personal pursuit of destiny. If we don’t know what that it, it important to self-assess and find a direction. We never know where the next crossroads will lead us to or how much time we have. Even an actor who seemingly had it all, ended up in wreckage that suddenly took it all away.
When you pass, what kind of legend or memory will you be leaving behind?
Thanks for reading! What did you think of the article? Do you agree with what coolness is through the exemplification of James Dean? Feel free to leave comments or feedback below. Have a great day!
– Mark G