June 05, 2005

James Dean attracts new fans 50 years after death

MARION, INDIANA - The secret to James Dean's iconic status is his sly grin. Or at least that's what 16-year-old Sarah Moison-Thomas thinks.

"It's his charm. And the sense that he knows something you don't. That's what's so alluring about him," she gushed as she toured James Dean Fest on Saturday in Dean's birthplace of Marion, Indiana.

Moison-Thomas is far too young to have seen Dean on the big screen. She's only managed to track down one of his three films -- Rebel Without a Cause -- on DVD. But that hasn't stopped her from plastering her Lafayette, Indiana bedroom with posters of Dean's captivating smile.

And like a surprising number of her generation, Moison-Thomas is planning on buying the new box set of Dean's films that has just been released ahead of a slew of events set to mark the 50th anniversary of his death on September 30, 1955.

The fanfare is a bit surprising to Bob Middleton, 77, a childhood friend of Dean's who remembers the angst-ridden movie star as "a teenaged kid who was very likable, no trouble of any kind, just like the rest of us Fairmont boys."

Middleton, who was a pallbearer at Dean's funeral, thought that Dean's fame would fade like so many of the Hollywood legends of old. Instead, Dean became a symbol of youthful rebellion and counter-culture cool.

"James Dean gave teenagers who felt alienated from the adult world a voice," explained biographer George Perry as he signed books in a tent at the festival.

With his roles as a moody youth desperately struggling to define himself while yearning for the love of a distant parent, Dean became the archetypal rebel at a time when conformity was the norm and obedience was required.

"He still represents something special to young people," Perry said.

That's partly because of the timelessness of Dean's look: jeans and a black cable knit sweater or cowboy boots under a black suit -- as hip now as they were in 1955.

But it's also because Dean died at the age of 24, long before he'd had the opportunity to fade, or to fail.

Dean starred in Oscar-winning films -- East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant -- and worked with the top directors of his time. He also had just over a year to enjoy his fame before he was killed while driving his Porsche Spyder 550 through the California countryside.

"There's a very romantic thing about dying young. That's how you become a legend," said Earl Holliman, who appeared in Giant. "It's a different world out there today. Let's hope there would have been room for Jimmy."

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