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. 

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution