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A life in pictures: James Dean

BY Eleanor Dunn

1st Jan 2015 Celebrities

Only the good die young. Here are 11 striking photos of the timeless actor, James Dean. 

“The only way to make a scene realistic is to do it the way you know it would really happen.” James Byron Dean’s acting style was peppered with the truths of his personal life, a life defined by the young star’s unabashed rebellion, curiosity and brooding air of intrigue.

Perhaps the most striking remnants of James Dean’s brief yet rich life lie in iconic portraits. They provide an invaluable insight into the man behind the mere three Hollywood blockbusters he starred in before his tragic death at age 24.

Here are 11 of the best.


1. Some light reading

In this rare photograph from 1955, James Dean reads from a book of poetry in his hometown of Fairmont, Indiana.

He was visiting his uncle, Marcus Winslow, with whom his father sent him to live after his mother died from cancer when he was nine years old. Dean was raised by his aunt and uncle as a Quaker on their humble farm. 


2. Acting the fool

Dean is here seen messing around with his Rebel Without a Cause co-star, the then 16-year-old Natalie Wood.

Both stars suffered tragically premature deaths. Dean died in a car accident before the film was released, and Wood drowned in 1981 whilst on a weekend boat trip to Santa Catalina Island aged just 44.


3. A dog's life

In another rarely seen snap by Dennis Stock, a little girl shows the actor a pheasant’s head outside a shop. 


4. Starring in East of Eden

 James Dean
Image via East of Eden

James Dean played Cal Trask in East of Eden, his 1955 big-screen debut and one of just three films he appeared in before his death. Based on John Steinbeck’s haunting novel, East of Eden questioned the dynamics of brotherly love, strongly drawing from the themes of the Biblical Cain and Abel tale.

It has been said that on the last day of shooting the film, Dean was found sobbing in his dressing room, crying “it’s over.”


5. Boy racer

James Dean with his Porsche 550 Spyder nicknamed "Little Bastard". Dean was a race-car fanatic and his insatiable appetite for adrenaline would eventually lead to his untimely death.

Whilst shooting Giant, director George Stevens banned the star from racing until production had finished. Just before the start of the ban, Dean entered a Memorial Day race in Santa Barbara, where on the very last lap he blew a piston of his Porsche Speedster. Dean knew and embraced the perils of his obsession, once declaring “what better way to die? It’s fast and clean and you go out in a blaze of glory.”


6. A walk in the rain

In perhaps the most iconic of Dennis Stock’s portraits of Dean, the star is seen trawling the rain-beaten pavement of Times Square in 1955. 

Complete with Dean’s signature brooding gaze and cigarette, this shot is said to have inspired Grammy award-winning rock band Green Day’s melancholy single ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’.


7. Hidden talents

Against a stunning, mountainous backdrop, Dean practices ballet with a dancer in 1954. A perhaps unlikely hobby for the speed-racing rebel, Dean began taking tap lessons at the Marion College of Dance and Theatrical Arts at the age of three.

He had also danced ballet alongside Katherine Dunham in New York City, as captured below by Dennis Stock. 


8. At the Oscars

At a benefit dinner at Ciro’s in 1955, Dean sports his now-famous timid, enigmatic gaze alongside actress Ursula Andress.

After his death, Dean became the first actor to be honoured with a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and remains the only actor to have had two posthumous acting nominations. 


9. A musical soul

In another rare capture by Dennis Stock, James Dean plays a bongo drum in a ‘jam session’ with friends in New York City, 1955. The actor had a deep love of music, and founded his college’s jazz club. 


10. Life in death

In this light-hearted, yet eerie shot taken in Fairmont, Indiana, Dean poses in a casket just seven months before his death.

The gutsy young actor once spoke on his powerful interpretation of the afterlife, claiming “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.”


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