Wheeler Ridge, Southern California. It was 3.30pm on September 30th, 1955 and James Dean had just been issued with a speeding ticket. He was carving up the flat, dusty roads just south of Bakersfield and got clocked at 65mph in a 55mph zone. Just over two hours later, he was dead.
Dean was a proficient racing driver, and had taken delivery of his new Porsche ‘Little Bastard’ 550 Spyder only nine days prior to his fatal crash, but he would never make the Salinas road race he was entered into later that week. Only three films into his career, the premature death of a 24-year-old James Dean would shock the world, and yet ensure his legacy would never fade. As Humphrey Bogart put it, “Dean died at just the right time. He left behind a legend. If he had lived, he’d never have been able to live up to his publicity.”
Dean was a prodigious acting talent, yet it’s the way he carried himself off screen which set him apart and marked him out as a figurehead for rebellious youth. He didn’t abide by Hollywood standards of the time and would live by his own rules. Whilst under contract to Warner Brothers, studio boss Jack L. Warner forbade Dean to pilot his Triumph TR5 Trophy or his Porsche 550 on the road, permitting him only to race within a closed circuit environment. That didn't last long. It was his appearance that rubbed some up the wrong way though. Many of the biggest male movie stars of the '50s - Bogart, Stewart, Cooper, Grant, Gable - came from a generation or two before, and represented ‘old Hollywood’ in their slick side partings and tailored suits. Yet Dean didn’t care for clothes or outward appearance and would reportedly show up to his early castings barefoot with safety pins holding together his torn trousers. Actress Julie Harris recalls another time when she attended a lunch with Dean: “He came without a shirt, dirty from the set, in his old dungarees.” His dishevelled appearance combined with his emotionally vulnerable screen performances - such as his portrayal of Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause - ushered in a new era of masculinity; one that was less polished and far from overtly macho.