"Too fast to live, too young to die..." ("James Dean," The Eagles)
It has been over three months since the untimely death of actor Heath Ledger. Because of Ledger's passing, there are those who expect Batman: The Dark Knight to be huge at the box office. I must say that I agree with them. In fact, it would not be the first time that an actor's death has propelled a movie or, for that matter, a work in another medium, to the top of the charts.
In fact, in the wake of Heath Ledger's death comparisons were already being made to actor James Dean, who also died young. In some respects the cult that arose around James Dean is surprising, given precisely how short his filmography is. His entire career consisted of around 35 television appearances, around four movies in which he either appeared in uncredited parts or as an extra, and major roles in only three motion pictures (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant).
While Dean's career may have been short, he made an impact that few actors have before or since. This was perhaps largely because of his roles in both East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. In East of Eden Dean played his first major role in a film, that of Cal Trask, the rebellious son of an overly religious father. Teenagers of the era were naturally drawn to the character of Cal, with whom they could easily identify. When James Dean was killed September 30, 1950, it naturally sent shock waves through his many fans. It would also propel his next film, Rebel Without a Cause (released a little less than a month after his death), to the top of the box office. The film, in which Dean played disaffected youth Jim Stark, would become the one with which the actor is most identified. In his final film, Giant, Dean played a character as unlike Trask and Stark as possible. Jett was surly, racist, and fairly selfish. Regardless, Giant was a hit, and there can be little doubt that much of its audience was made up of teenagers who would probably not have watched an epic drama otherwise. In fact, Giant was the largest grossing film in the history of Warner Brothers until Superman: the Motion Picture.
Even in the months following his death, the impact of James Dean's passing went beyond the grosses of his movies. In the year following his death, his fan club had swelled to almost four million members. Warner Brothers continued to receive 4000 letters a day with regards to Dean. He became one of the few actors to receive posthumous Oscar nominations--one for his role in East of Eden and one for his role in Giant. And almost immediately following his death, urban legends would spring up about Dean. One was that he was not killed in the accident that took his life, but was hideously disfigured and in a California hospital. Since then, James Dean's death has only grown.
While the cult that arose around James Dean is unusual, it was not wholly unknown, even in 1955. Some twenty nine years earlier an actor died who also maintains something of a cult to this day. Rudolph Valentino had been playing small parts in films, usually as a heavy, when he was cast as Julio Desnoyers in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The film made Valentino a star and a sex symbol for women across America. His stardom would only rise to even greater heights when he played the title role in The Sheik, the film with which he is most identified. While his career would decline as the Twenties progressed, his death at the age of 31 in 1926 would have a huge impact. At his funeral in New York City around 100,000 gathered on the streets to pay their respects. Windows of the Frank Campbell Funeral Home were broken as fans tried to get inside. His films would be re-released well in the Thirties. Over the years, on the anniversary of his death, a woman in black has gone to his grave with a single red rose to mourn him. Indeed, while it is doubtful most Americans today have seen any of Valentino's films, he is one of the few actors from his era who is immediately identifiable.
Of course, when it comes to celebrities who die young, it is probably rock stars that come to most people's minds. While the cult of Jim Morrison, one time leader of The Doors, may not match that of James Dean, it is probably safe to say that it comes close. The Doors were formed in 1965. By 1967 their self titled debut album was a hit. The single from the album, "Light My Fire," would go on to sell around 1 million records. The Doors were established as one of the biggest bands in the United States. After five albums, a controversial performance in Miami which would ultimately find Morrison convicted of profanity and indecent exposure, and interpersonal problems with the band, Morrison moved to Paris. It was there that he died at the age of 27. Since then the cult of both The Doors and of Jim Morrison himself has grown. As far as musicians of his era, Morrison was not alone in dying young or having a cult arise around him following his death. Both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin also died young, only to have even greater popularity following their deaths.
It is perhaps an unanswerable question as to whether James Dean would have become such a legend had he not died young, or whether The Doors would have continued to enjoy the popularity they have over the years had it not been for Jim Morrison's untimely death. That having been said, it seems possible that dying young in some respects cemented their status as iconic figures. James Dean, Rudolph Valentino, and Jim Morrison never grew old. Their hair never greyed. Their faces never developed wrinkles. In effect, they were frozen in time--they remain perpetually young. Never having grown old, James Dean remains the rebel without a cause in a windbreaker and jeans. Never having been subjected to the ravages of time, Jim Morrison remains the Lizard King--the young, wild, untamed front man of one of the most popular rock bands of all time. In this respect Dean, Morrison, and other celebrities who have died young remain figures with which youth can identify and those who have grown old can long to be. In dying young, such celebrities essentially become symbols of untamed youth for all time.