Remembering the king of cool!

by Katherine Gould, Associate Curator of Cultural History

On Sept. 30, 1955, James Dean was killed in a car accident. He was only 24 years old and, though he made only three feature films during his short career, Dean became a Hollywood icon. He has had a tremendous and lasting impact on every phase of American culture. Even now, 57 years later, we still reminisce about his brief yet impressive career and mourn the tragedy of lost potential. But why James Dean? What is it about this young Indiana farm boy that has so captured our imagination?

One of the reasons that James Dean has endured, I think, is not so much for what he has done as an actor, but more for what he represents. Because for many, James Dean marks the birth of “cool.” But what exactly does cool mean? Is it an attitude or a look? Can cool be manufactured as a persona, or is it something that has to be earned and bestowed by others?

You say James Dean’s name and immediately conjure Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause: blue jeans, red jacket and brooding teenager. That character set the blueprint for cool: the tough but tender hero that everyone wanted to be or befriend. And over the years there has been a lot of blurring the lines between the actor and the character. So that may be part of it, part of the legend-building. But for the true fans – Deaners as they like to call themselves – there is more to it. There is no superficiality with Deaners. This is not a vague worship of a film character. For them, the appeal is not just for Dean, the Hollywood icon, but for whom Dean was as a person. There is a fond appreciation for the way he chose to live his life.

Eternal James Dean is a new exhibit opening at the Indiana State Museum on Nov. 23, 2012. In it we will reconnect the iconic image of James Dean with its origin by looking at both the man and the icon, engaging visitors in the life and legend of the Hoosier star. Personal artifacts, family snapshots and professional photographs will shed light on who James Dean was, both the actor, the man and the epitome of cool.

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