Even though he only made three films, James Dean introduced Hollywood to a new kind of man: Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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James Dean and the birth of modern masculinity

A life mesmerisingly truncated, James Dean left behind only three films, and the gaping absence of the career that might have been.

In Rebel Without A Cause, from 1955, a 24-year old James Dean, red-jacketed and tight-jeaned, climbs behind the wheel of an old black Mercury. To his right, the opponent he will race to the edge of a cliff hangs out of his driver-side window for a last slug of bravado: “Hey Toreador!”, he jeers. “First man who jumps is a chicken.” Re-inserting a trademark cigarette, Dean flicks on his headlights and hits the gas, and the two cars accelerate towards the brink. Frames from the edge, Dean glances right, grabs for the door and rolls out onto the turf. His adversary, jacket sleeve caught on his door handle and jammed into his driver’s seat, slips wrenchingly over the edge with his car.

Less than a year later, the real life James Dean, whose legacy is the subject of an upcoming retrospective at the BFI, was to die in an echoing event, flipping a race-car on a bend on a California highway. A life mesmerisingly truncated, he left behind only three films, and the gaping absence of the career that might have been. It was a sequence of events morbidly inkeeping with the themes of doomed youth his characters embodied.

The word “iconic” is tossed around ad nauseum, but if ever it were to apply, in the sense of an individual and a star whose off-screen persona outshines the sum of their roles, who bends the fabric of the society in which they live, Dean would surely qualify. In life, and even more so in death, the bee-stung darling of early Technicolor has held the awe of the movie-going public.

But facial anatomy and excellent hair were not the traits for which Dean was influential. Hollywood does not suffer a shortage of cheekbones. He slotted into a blurry interlude following the second world war but before the flowering of the Beat movement, in which the role of a man in society was under sudden and unsuspected dispute. A generation primed for combat found itself at a loss of purpose, and gender roles that were without meaning overnight began to merge and reconfigure themselves.

A portrait of Dean from the early 1950s.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dean was a new kind of man. His characters cried and struggled and screamed in frustration at the blurry world they had to live in. They were awkward and uncertain, grappling with sexuality and the disappointment in older men around them. “What can you do when you have to be a man?”, screams Jim, the tortured hero of Rebel Without A Cause, at his impotent father.

The cut of the male star was formerly more robust: Charlton Heston, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable – these were men’s men, manoeuvring from the Alexandrian chariot to the Western Front with a raised eyebrow in place. But the type of machismo with which Hollywood used to cash cheques, which slipped so easily into the rhythm of day-saving and woman-placating, is now all but redundant. George Clooney is perhaps the only contemporary relic of that 1940s flavour of heterosexuality. With a Cary Grant jawline and non-threatening cool, Clooney lingers as a housewives’ favourite, occasionally modernising his brand with political activism and dips into independent pictures. He banks on a nostalgia for the screen heroes that preceded him.

But the successors to James Dean are in evidence everywhere. From the contemplative Ryan Gosling to the part-time poet James Franco, the Emotional Man is now a marketable asset. Matthew McConaughey, 2014’s case in point, has lived an entire spectrum of masculinity, latterly dropping frat-boy kilos to become a thoughtful shadow of himself – a feminised brand that has been remunerated well beyond his Oscar.

In Hollywood today, a “male icon” is a contradiction in terms. Where fame has become all but genderless, a new batch of androgynous stars has fumbled its way to the surface. From Michael Cera to Jesse Eisenberg, the cinema is synonymous with a group of loping, hobbit-haired boys so divorced from masculinity that their characters actively mock the idea of sexual power. A swelling interest in superheroes, as an object of ironic admiration by the tech generation, is not coincidental, as fanboys reflect on a lost type of man, so distant from themselves.

James Dean opened a door for the re-imagining of the male star. An awkward icon, he gave early shape to a model that would take decades to take hold. A man not just uncomfortable in himself but in the very idea of what a man represents, alongside Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash he broke a cycle of sexual dogma, laying the tracks for a half-century of flexible, sensitive masculinity. From the Beatles to The Graduate, The Smiths to Superbad, another type of man entirely was to dominate a soft, new horizon. 

NICOLA TYSON, COURTESY SADIE COLES HQ, LONDON
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Dave Haslam's history of venues makes nightclub walls talk

Life After Dark: a History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues reveals the ghosts of hedonism past.

“If these walls could talk . . .” The cliché owes its force to the notion that buildings are sentient – the suggestion that what happens inside them leaves a trace element. We feel the power of this idea in very different ways as we tour, say, Versailles or Dachau. It’s an idea very much at play in the best passages of this book.

There is a wonderful moment early on when the author tours the Dean Street Townhouse building in Soho, central London, along with a few young members of staff. The location is now an upscale hotel and restaurant but, as Haslam explains to them, back in 1978 the basement hosted Billy’s nightclub. Billy’s was run by Steve Strange and played host to the burgeoning New Romantic movement, with the likes of Boy George and Spandau Ballet all trooping down the steps off Meard Street. Later on, in 1982, the ultra-hip original Goth club the Batcave opened its doors on the top floor of the same building, and the elevator would have ferried the likes of Robert Smith of the Cure and Marc Almond skywards.

The twentysomething staff don’t seem altogether sure who these people are, but Haslam goes further as he tells them (no doubt to further head-scratching) that the building has in fact been a nightclub since the 1920s, when it was called the Gargoyle. The people who danced and partied there over the decades would have included Henri Matisse, Tallulah Bankhead, Fred Astaire and Noël Coward, he says.

It is a fantastic example of the deep vein of hedonism you sense thrumming behind the walls of many buildings in such areas as Soho, and Haslam extends this approach throughout the book as he travels across Britain, digging into the history of the likes of the Leadmill in Sheffield, the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow, the Cavern in Liverpool and the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, often tracing the origins of the venues back to Victorian times. It makes for a fascinating read, especially if you have ever stood in an old music venue and wondered (as I have often done) about the many previous generations whose fights, fashions, frugs and frocks have played out on the very boards you are treading.

Along the way, there are in-depth, illuminating interviews with figures as diverse as the novelist David Peace (on Goth clubs in Leeds) and James Barton, the co-founder of Cream (on the problems of running a nightclub in a city rife with gang warfare), as well as less familiar names such as Hyeonje Oh, the current owner of the Surakhan restaurant on Park Row in Bristol. Haslam explains to the amiable Mr Oh (in a wonderful scene reminiscent of that visit to Dean Street Townhouse) that, back in the mid-Eighties, the basement of his restaurant played host to the Dug Out club, where the careers of Massive Attack and Nellee Hooper began. None of this means very much to the restaurateur, until Haslam points out that Nellee Hooper has worked with Madonna. Mr Oh has heard of Madonna.

On occasion, the book slides into potted histories of the youth movements that came out of the nightclubs it is documenting. So we get a few pages on the emergence of punk rock, a few pages on the rise of acid house – nothing, frankly, that anyone with a passing interest in music or youth culture wouldn’t already know. I’m not sure we need to hear again that “one of the people energised by the Sex Pistols [at the Manchester Free Trade Hall] was Tony Wilson, who arranged for the band to premiere their ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single . . . on his Granada TV show”, except in a book aimed at the most general reader (which a book with the subtitle of this one surely is not).

Haslam is on much more interesting ground in the basement of a Korean restaurant that once throbbed to the heavy dub reggae whose influence shaped a generation of music performers and producers. Or when he describes the progress of the Coliseum in Harlesden, north-west London, from cinema in 1915, to fleapit punk rock venue in the Seventies – where, in March 1977, you could have seen the Clash (along with three other bands, and a couple of kung fu films) for £1.50 – to the Wetherspoons pub that stands on its site today. In these pages he asks you to imagine Daddy G of Massive Attack working the decks where the crates of produce are now stacked, to see Joe Strummer’s right leg pumping just inches from where office workers now sip discounted Sauvignon. In these pages, he makes the walls talk.

John Niven is the author of the novels “Kill Your Friends” (Windmill Books) and “The Sunshine Cruise Company” (William Heinemann)

Life After Dark: a History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues by Dave Haslam is published by Simon & Schuster (480pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war