Even if you haven't seen his movies - and there are only three of them - just about everyone familiar with American pop culture knows this face: James Dean.
Sixty years ago today, while speeding along the roads of Cholame, Calif., in his Porsche 550 Spyder, nicknamed "Little Bastard," Dean collided with another car in an intersection, an accident that ended his life almost instantaneously.
Even though the accident cut short his career, Dean transformed from a rising star to an enduring icon, seemingly epidimozing the expression, "Live fast, and die young." But what accounts for Dean's place as an American legend?
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Certainly his looks played a role, and dying at age 24 meant no one got the chance to see him age. He also had a style all his own, a unique combination of cigarettes, unkempt hair, a red jacket and a white shirt that gave him a certain status. Smooth but with an edge, vulnerable but masculine, cool but also tempermental. All of these traits derived from his style. Dean also stood out as an exceptional performer, still the only actor to receive two posthumous Academy Award nominations.
But there's more to it than it, and it concerns the science of celebrity.
Although celebrity culture often is often and understandably derided as shallow and hollow, audiences play an active role in parsing celebrity identity the build their own self-images, according to a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Marketing Management. This helps to explain why celebrities make such effective spokespeople, but also why individuals form an emotional connection to people they've never met.
In fact, according to a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, audiences can lose themselves in a fictional world, fixating on the traits of a particular character. Consumers may even alter their behaviors and attitudes to line up with those of that character.
The study focused solely on literary characters, but imagine the outsized effect created by a film featuring a character with the looks and charisma of Dean.
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In Dean's case, he was the archetype of the emotionally troubled, anti-authoritarian American teenager, largely thanks to his role in Rebel Without a Cause. Audiences borrowed pieces of his character that went beyond just clothes or hairstyles to form pieces of their identity.
Because of that connection between audience and actor, not just on an emotional but pscyhological level, the sudden death of a celebrity can lead consumers with no real-life connection to the deceased individual to feel a strong sense of grief. Unlike the death of a family member, in which that sorrow is kept within a specific group, the death of a celebrity is a common experience, shared even by an entire country, and strangers can seek solace by commiserating with one another. This effect has been seen in social media postings following contemporary celebrity death, Kansas State University researchers found.
James Dean endures not just because of his looks or even his talent. Dean remains relevant today because he made a connection with audiences that was never forgotten, even 60 years after his death.
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