James Dean would have been 78, if he were alive today. In fact, he was killed in a car smash when he was just 24. His movie legacy is brief, with just three iconic films (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant) leaping out of filmic history to bring Dean into the forefront of the twentieth century motion picture legends. He was the first real genuine "Bad Boy" to catch the attention of movie fans and make hearts beat faster (though James Cagney had set a precedent for the Bad Boy back in the 1930s, with another generation of iconic movies like Angels With Dirty Faces, and White Heat.)
It would be fair to say, a lot of viewers couldn't stand him! It would be equally true to say he was worshipped by a lot more fans, and he continues to be idolized 54 years after the car wreck which ended his career. Now, much of what I know about James Dean, I learned from the biography James Dean: Portrait of a Friend, in which he was portrayed by one of my own favorite actors, Stephen McHattie (Canadian, born in 1947). I've been fascinated by Dean myself, for a long time.
Here's a brief quote from his page at Wikipedia:
Many American teens at the time of Dean's major movies identified with Dean and the roles he played, especially in Rebel Without A Cause: the typical teenager, caught where no one, not even his peers, can understand him. Joe Hyams says that Dean was "one of the rare stars, like Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift, who both men and women find sexy." According to Marjorie Garber, this quality is "the undefinable extra something that makes a star." Dean's iconic appeal has been attributed to the public's need for someone to stand up for the disenfranchised young of the era, and to the air of androgyny that he projected onscreen. Dean's "loving tenderness towards the besotted Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause continues to touch and excite gay audiences by its honesty. The Gay Times Readers' Awards cited him as the male gay icon of all time."
Couldn't have put it better myself. The Stephen McHattie movie hints in every direction about James Dean's private life and persona, but it was made way back when, in an age when you couldn't be too up-front about this kind of, uh, thing. But it's interesting that reviewers now place Dean in the self-same file folder as Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson and Sal Mineo -- all of whom were gay, and all of whom were attractive to both sides of the fence.
So -- happy birthday, James Dean, wherever you are.