James Dean died 50 years ago today. Appearing on the scene during a time when the macho, overtly sexual Marlon Brando was the most prominent image of masculinity, Dean was something new. His willingness to look weak, and to share his deepest insecurities was explosively different, and his vulnerability was shocking.
As Mick LaSalle points out in the worshipful article linked below, the world Dean lived in has so little connection to ours (he never heard The Beatles; didn't live through the political chaos of the 60s) that he seems almost alien sometimes. He's so distant that he's become a symbol to us now: the kid with the cigarette dangling from his lips, tough facade laid over painful insecurity. He's so fragile that we want to protect him, but there's toughness there, too, a toughness that makes him willing to appear weak in front of the whole world.
I've always wondered what would have happened to Montgomery Clift's reputation if he had died in his car accident, leaving behind just a handful of incredibly powerful, sensitive performances. Instead, Clift survived, his strikingly handsome face broken by scars and paralysis. Addicted to painkillers and God knows what else, he made bad movies and finally gave in to what was probably a drug and alcohol-assisted death years later.
Because he died so young, though, Dean will always be impossibly beautiful. He'll never make a bad movie, and he'll never take horrible roles just because he wants the money. He won't show up in the tabloids, and he won't destroy himself with drink and drugs. He gets to stay perfect.