James Dean Icon for a Generation

James Dean Icon for a Generation

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

In death, the actor James Dean became a global megastar.  

If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man. 
— James Dean

When he passed away in 1955 he had only completed three movies.  He was 24-years-old and died in a car accident near Paso Robles, Calif., on the way to a sports car meet. 

Only one of his movies “East of Eden” loosely based on the novel by John Steinbeck, had been released.  After his death two more appeared, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant.”

As the rebellious youth on screen, Dean touched something real in himself that in turn touched something real in his audiences.

Director Eli Kazan could have cast Marlon Brando for the part of the rebellious youth in “East of Eden.”  He fit the part.  Instead he went with a relatively unknown Broadway actor. 

Dean knew this was his big chance. 

From the start of filming Kazan could see the young actor was uncomfortable.  Everything was so new to him.  The movie echoed the biblical tale of Cain and Abel about the relationship between a father and his two sons.

The crew spent all afternoon trying to film one scene in the movie and it took getting Dean tanked up on red wine to coax an unforgettable scene out of him. 

The role just happened to be a photograph of his own life and struggles with his father.  Dean played a young man crying out for help.  His sadness and alienation were no act.    

“God he gave everything he had.  There wasn’t anything he held back,” Kazan said.  “Only at the very, very end—the last few days when you felt that a star was going to be born, and everybody smelled it, all the publicity people began to hang around him—then he began to spoil.”

Dean gave movie-goers a new, sensitive anti-hero on the big screen. He was at home with his own vulnerability. 

“He is a rare thing, a young actor who is a great actor,” said one movie critic.  “The troubled eloquence with which he puts over the problems of misunderstood youth may lead to his being accepted by young audiences as a sort of symbol of their generation.”

An accurate prediction. 

Dean received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for “East of Eden.”  His other was for “Giant.”

The release of “East of Eden” catapulted Dean to stardom. The fans, the praise, the criticism, it was overwhelming.  People relentlessly bugged him for autographs and time.  Women wanted to love him.  Guys wanted to be just like him.

When he wasn’t on set Dean spent his time racing his sports car and motorcycle.  He was fearless and consumed with speed.  People quit driving with him because he drove so fast. 

Dean was ultimately killed when his gray Porsche smashed into a black-and-white sedan.

“If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he's dead, then maybe he was a great man,” he said.  If time is any indicator, James Dean pulled it off.

On April 21, Swann Auction Galleries, featured a selection of celebrity photos in its Autographs auction.  Included in the sale was a scrapbook with original photos of Dean and his grandparents, circa 1950s-60s.  The lot sold for $10,200.


Joan Crawford; bust portrait Photograph; signed and inscribed; 1930s; 12 inches by 9 ¼ inches;  $1,200.

Laurel and Hardy; bust portrait Photograph; signed by both men; 6 ¾ inches by 9 ½ inches;  $1,560.

Charles Lindbergh; half-length portrait; signed and inscribed; 1927; 12 inches by 10 inches overall;  $2,400.

Albert Einstein; bust portrait; signed and inscribed; 1935; 8 inches by 6 inches overall;  $7,200.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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