Robert Towne said this about James Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause:
He was the fellow who was going to go to the police and tell the truth. I mean, if you look back, no Bible-thumping Protestant could be more of a reformer than James Dean was … he was the last thing from a rebel.
The actors whom James Dean most admired were those he knew from the Actors Studio in New York. They were under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan, who helped to promote the Method. The method actor was probably best understood in the prototype model of Marlon Brando’s performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando immersed himself in the role and became synonymous with the part of Stanley Kowalski. He owned the character. Other method actors followed, including Paul Newman, who also studied the form in New York.
James Dean was from this school of acting, and he also immersed himself in his roles. That is one reason why the James Dean legend endures. The era he was born in, the circumstances surrounding his tragic death at such a young age, and his own charisma and good looks captured a generation of young people.
His legacy began with Paul Newman, who took his part in The Left-Handed Gun and also Somebody Up There Likes Me. Steve McQueen continued to carry the mantle with his roles in The Great Escape and Bullitt.
Newman is an older version of Dean in The Verdict. He plays a man on the skids who is lost, alone, confused, and no longer young. This is a departure for the James Dean mold but one he would have welcomed, I believe. In Giant, Dean also played the part of a man who ages decades in the course of the film.
Other prime examples of Dean’s legacy include Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull in 1980 and Sean Penn, another method actor, who won an Academy Award for his performance in Dead Man Walking. These actors immerse themselves in their parts and are known for their grueling prep work before the cameras roll.
There are no apparent newcomers to supplant the role that James Dean created. The rebel hero, the rebel without a cause, the lost, lonely, misunderstood and yet sensitive hero is still remembered as the James Dean hero.
Film noir and existentialism gave us role models such as Bogart’s Philip Marlowe or the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless, but James Dean is an exclusively American icon of film.
In the modern era, Sean Penn would have been the closest thing to James Dean when he starred in the comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High or his Oscar-winning role in Dead Man Walking. Brad Pitt assumed the mantle in Kalifornia, Thelma and Louise, Meet Joe Black, and Fight Club.
There are no hard-and-fast rules here, but certain standards do apply. The existential James Dean hero is not cut from the standard heroic mold. He is often shy and antisocial; he may be very good looking, but not always. Steve McQueen and Sean Penn, although not as handsome as Newman or Brad Pitt, possess the charisma and emotional capacity to convey extreme angst without losing the aura of cool.
This is a feat that is most difficult to pull off. Very few actors can do this gracefully, yet somehow a few of them have worked in the model or format of the James Dean hero. The legacy will grow and continue to survive as long as the American Dream continues, and as long as new generations of teenagers still exist. It may not be forever, but the James Dean legacy survives on film.