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James Dean: The Makings of a Legend

The latest biopic of James Dean, ‘Life,’ reveals the friendship between the actor and photographer Dennis Stock as they traveled from Los Angeles to New York to Dean’s hometown of Indiana, taking iconic shots along the way.

Everyone remembers the stunning black-and-white photo taken of James Dean in the mean streets of New York. He’s walking alone next to Central Park, hands wedged deep in the pockets of an oversized trench coat, smoking a cigarette and looking off into the distance. It’s an iconic image of an iconic young man, one who was taken from the spotlight before he ever really entered it.

When James Dean died in September 1955 he was just 24 years old. He had certainly gained notoriety through his work on East of Eden, a film that was largely improvised and won him the first ever posthumous Academy Award nomination for lead actor. But it wasn’t until a month after his death that the real film for which the actor became known for was released: Rebel Without a Cause. A short time later the third and final film for which the actor would be known, Giant, also hit theatres.

The actor’s roles in each of the films may have been significantly different, but it was his portrayal of rebellious teenager Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause that hit the right notes with adolescent movie-goers. That, coupled with the way Dean died (racing his Porsche 550 Spyder, which was nicknamed “Little Bastard”) propelled him to a type of immortal cult status like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, but one that celebrated rebellion and going against the status quo. Fittingly, it was also the only one of these three film for which Dean wasn’t nominated posthumously for an Academy Award, and the role that made him go for Giant in the first place; he didn’t want to be typecast as the bad boy teenager.

James Dean Photo

James Dean in ‘East of Eden.’ (Photo: Getty)

While Dean may have become something of a teen heartthrob onscreen, behind-the-scenes it was a different story. The man was known to pay very little attention to his personal appearance, reportedly sometimes even showing up places with disheveled hair or without shoes. That’s largely why the set of photos including the one mentioned above were such an integral part of his story. Shot by up-and-coming Life photographer Dennis Stock, these prints included photos of Dean visiting the town of Fairmount, Indiana, where he grew up, getting his hair trimmed or going about his every day life.

It’s this photo shoot that is the subject of the latest biopic revolving around the actor’s life in Life. In it, Dean is portrayed by Dane DeHaan, while the role of Stock is helmed by Robert Pattinson. The flick doesn’t hit theatres until December, but it’s already garnering mixed reviews from several film festivals, with criticisms against the film accusing it of shying away from digging deep into Dean’s personal interactions.

That includes the often looked over fact that Dean was reportedly bisexual, having had relationships with several men and women over the course of his short life. It’s a fact that’s been confirmed by Elizabeth Taylor herself, Dean’s Giant co-star who once counted Dean among her many gay friends.

In fact, after Taylor’s death in 2011, off-the-record interviews with the star surfaced revealing even more gossip about her former co-star. In an interview with the Daily Beast, the starlet dropped another bombshell to Dean fans everywhere.

“I loved Jimmy. I’m going to tell you something, but it’s off the record until I die. OK? When Jimmy was 11 and his mother passed away, he began to be molested by his minister. I think that haunted him the rest of his life. In fact, I know it did.”

Whether Dean’s racing and continued quest for speed (he upgraded racing cars several times in the years before his death) had anything to do with trying to escape his past is something the actor has taken to the grave with him. What he did leave behind is an image of restless youth intent on fighting The Man, and an actor who was able to express the hopes and dreams of the young in a way so few others ever have. Even if that wasn’t exactly the legacy he planned on leaving behind, it’s one that has stuck for more than half a century with movie buffs everywhere. It’s an impressive feat indeed, considering the man’s altogether short resume and life.