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Six things you’ve always wanted to know about James Dean

You know the myth: the posters, the Levi’s, the screw-you slouch. But what do you know about the man?

Yes. No doubts there. He made just three films, quick-fire, in the 1950s. Elia Kazan, director of the first one, ‘East of Eden’, said that the cast and crew knew something was up: ‘You felt that a star was going to be born. Everybody smelled it.’ Like Heath Ledger, Dean was Oscar-nominated after his death, for ‘East of Eden’ and ‘Giant’. But it’s ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ that made him a legend. Dean died a month before its release. He was 24.

Just like everybody else, according to his uncle Marcus Winslow, who raised Jimmy (everyone called him Jimmy) on his farm in Indiana, after his mum died when he was nine. ‘They just don’t want to hear that he was an ordinary boy.’

But that’s not the whole truth. Even his friends said he was introspective and moody. And he had a streak of rebellion running through him. In high school, he was suspended for punching a kid who criticised his acting. You can see his sensitive side in this letter he wrote from LA to a girlfriend in New York: ‘I don’t like it here. I don’t like people here… Must I always be miserable? I try so hard to make people reject me. Why? Wow! Am I fucked-up.’ Funny, too, right?

One biographer claimed Dean had an on-off relationship with Marlon Brando. Bitchy gossips sniped that he slept his way to success on the casting couch. The truth is we just don’t know. Asked upfront, Dean gave this brilliant answer: ‘I’m certainly not going through life with one hand tied behind my back.’ Which basically means: ‘Who cares? Mind your own.’ The feeling now is that he was probably bisexual.

People like to think so. Live fast, die young and all that. Dean was killed in a car crash in 1955 when his Porsche smashed head-on into another car. Two hours earlier he’d been given a speeding ticket. A speed freak with a reputation for being reckless, Dean once told a photographer he wouldn’t live past 30. (But then, don’t all kids say that?) However, ten years ago, evidence emerged that he was driving at a much lower speed than previously thought.

Off the radar. He didn’t show up to the premiere of his first film. But that doesn’t make him a slacker. You know the ‘10,000 hours rule’ (that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve greatness in any field)? Dean would have passed it. He had talent to burn, but he worked hard. As a struggling actor in New York, he auditioned for every crappy TV part going. He had to. He was no one’s idea of a movie star – too short, he slouched and wore glasses.

Men. Masculinity. Not just the look – cigarette dangling from his mouth, scruffy jeans and a white T-shirt – but the whole shebang. He projected a new kind of masculinity: vulnerable and tormented. Without James Dean, we’d have no Bob Dylan, no Morrissey, no Al Pacino. ‘The Beatles would have never existed,’ said John Lennon.

BFI Southbank’s James Dean season runs Fri Apr 18 to May 1 2014.

Read more about James Dean’s films

Giant (1956)

The film attempts to conduct some sort of attack on rampant materialism, as well as offering an elegy for the times that have a-changed. But the pace is so plodding, and the general effect so stultifyingly unsubtle, that one is left impressed only by the fine landscape photography and Dean's surprisingly convincing portrayal of a middle-aged man.

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Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

The story, much imitated since, might sound like nothing much – unsettled adolescent from good home can’t keep himself out of trouble, and gets involved with bad sorts until tragedy takes over – but what makes the film so powerful is both the sympathy it extends towards all the characters and the precise expressionism of Nicholas Ray’s direction.

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East of Eden (1955)

Ella Kazan's adaptation of Steinbeck's novel, about the rivalry between two teenage boys for the love of their father, is as long-winded and bloated with biblical allegory as the original. That said, it's a film of great performances, atmospheric photography, and a sure sense of period and place.

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