James Dean: The People’s Choice

by Katherine Gould, Associate Curator of Cultural History

Tonight is the kick-off to awards show season with the broadcast of the 39th People’s Choice Awards. Soon to follow are the Critics Choice Movie Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, the Producers Guild of America Awards, the Directors Guild of America Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Writers Guild of America Awards, the Film Independent Spirit Awards, and finally the Academy Awards. Did I miss any?

The thing with all of these awards and accolades is that they are a tally of the judgment of industry insiders. But the People’s Choice Awards is different, in that it’s a reflection of the tastes of the general public. It is more a fan celebration of pop culture celebrity than recognition for professional accomplishment. But the People’s Choice Awards have only been around since 1975. Prior to that, what about the opinion of the people who actually go to see the movies? What about the fans?

East of Eden poster

East of Eden poster

In 1955, an audience award poll, conceived of by the Motion Picture Theater Owners’ Organization, took place in more than 8,000 theaters across the country. Over 14 million ticket buyers participated to vote for what they thought were the best performances of 1955 for films released before Sept. 30. For his performance in East of Eden, James Dean was voted the Audience Award for Best Performance by a Motion Picture Actor. Other winners included Jennifer Jones for Best Performance by an actress and Mr. Roberts for Best Picture. At a banquet on Dec. 6, 1955, Dean’s costar Natalie Wood accepted the statuette, the “Audie,” on his behalf.

James Dean’s Audience Award trophy for Best Performance by a Motion Picture Actor.

James Dean’s Audience Award trophy for Best Performance by a Motion Picture Actor.

Now, this award is pretty significant because fans chose him over other well-known Hollywood actors with starring roles that year including Marlon Brando, Jimmy Steward, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra. One of the other categories that fans were able to vote on was Most Promising New Actor. That went to Tab Hunter for his performance in Battle Cry. Dean could have been considered for that since East of Eden was his first starring role in a motion picture but fans instead chose him for best overall.

One could argue that the tragedy of his death on Sept. 30 and the release of Rebel Without a Cause in October elevated his star and influenced public opinion of him. However, his subsequent Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for best actor seem to validate the public’s opinion: James Dean, for a short time, was considered by many to be the best.

To see Dean’s Audience Award trophy and other film-related artifacts, visit Eternal James Dean now through June 2, 2013.

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.

Let’s go to the movies!

by Katherine Gould, Associate Curator of Cultural History

What is your most memorable movie-going experience? We all have them: the epic love story that made us cry as we gazed up at that big screen; the first special effects experience to blow our minds; or the first make-out session in the back of a darkened theater (confession: Top Gun, 1986, his name was Sean).

For me, it’s not any one particular movie that is most memorable, but rather my overall movie-going experience as a kid. I grew up on Army bases across the county and most would have a single-screen theater that showed second-run films. I remember the seats being filled not only with kids and parents in civilian clothes but also men and women in uniform. Before the start of each movie, the theater would darken and everybody would rise and remove their caps for the national anthem. The screen would be filled with rousing, patriotic images of tanks rolling across rugged terrain, Navy destroyers smashing through the high seas, and fighter planes soaring over the mountains. Even now, quite a few years later, the memory of those experiences is as clear as day.

I queried the staff of the Indiana State Museum to find out about some of their favorite movie-going experiences. Because sometimes the best part of history is not researching important artifacts or examining “old-timey” photographs, but rather simply recalling our own experiences with the past, and what it means to us. That’s what makes history fun. That’s what makes it personal. So, for some of you, your memory of going to a theater to see Top Gun may involve squealing at seeing Tom Cruise playing beach volleyball or gripping your seat while watching the action-packed fighter jet scenes. For me, the memory is something completely different. Continue reading

Happy Birthday James Dean!

by Katherine Gould, Associate Curator of Cultural History

James Dean would have been 81 years old today. Whether or not you’ve seen his movies or read anything about him, you know who James Dean is. You know the name. You know the face. He was the bad boy rebel who became a symbol of a generation of young Americans trying to find their place in the world.

Born in 1931 and raised in Fairmount, James Byron Dean achieved stardom in Hollywood for his leading roles in the classic films East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Three films. That’s all. His potential for greater success in Hollywood was cut short on Sept. 30, 1955, when, at the age of 24, he was killed in a tragic car wreck. However, his influence lives on.

Very few Hollywood actors have influenced popular culture to the degree that James Dean has. He is instantly recognizable as a cultural touchstone for American youth culture, rebellion, beauty and desire. Not bad for a man who stopped contributing to his own legacy at the age of 24. In the 56 years since his death, references to James Dean in media and popular culture have been ever present.

For pop culture junkies, James Dean is a kaleidoscope of opportunities for exploration. With music, for example. I myself am a music junkie. I have over 4,000 songs in my music library and one of the ways I like to “constructively” spend my time is to create odd playlists just for the fun of it. For instance, one list is called “It-Factor” because all of the songs begin with the word “It.” Another playlist is of songs with someone’s name in it. You see where I’m going.

So, if we wanted to create a playlist of songs mentioning James Dean or about James Dean, where could we begin? How about in 1963 with the Beach Boys tune, “A Young Man is Gone,” wherein they lament, “But his life is through/ For the story is true/ For he died just as he lived.” Bringing it up to the present, we can turn to Beyoncé and “Rather Die Young.” On this 2011 track she sings, “Boy you’ll be the death of me/ You’re my James Dean/ You make me feel like I’m seventeen.” These are just two examples, but through the years, artists from all genres of music have used James Dean as a muse in their lyrical narratives. His name and image have been invoked over and over as the iconic symbol of sexy and cool.  

To further your studies of James Dean musicology and build your own playlist, I recommend:

  1.  “A Young Man is Gone,” The Beach Boys, Little Deuce Coup, 1963
  2. “American Pie,” Don McLean, American Pie, 1971
  3. “Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed, Transformer, 1972
  4. “James Dean,” the Eagles, On the Border, 1974
  5. “Jack and Diane,” John Mellencamp, American Fool, 1982
  6. “Come Back Jimmy Dean,” Bette Midler, No Frills, 1983
  7. “Vogue,” Madonna, I’m Breathless, 1990
  8. “Picture Show,” John Prine, The Missing Years, 1991
  9. “Electrolite,” R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi, 1996
  10. “Allure,” Jay-Z, The Black Album, 2003
  11. “Speechless,” Lady GaGa, The Fame Monster, 2009
  12. “Rather Die Young,” Beyoncé, 4, 2011