Every generation hails one actor or another as their own James Dean, so often that you’d think the comparison would get old. So many young male actors have been likened to him that it’s difficult to see beyond the broad clichés. But there’s no mistaking that Luke Perry, who died Monday from stroke complications at age 52, served up a James Dean for Gen X so memorably that it proves why we still keep anointing new Deans, particularly in an era where nearly every facet of masculinity of that type has been called into question.
Not so much based on Perry’s actual life, mind you, which was relatively low-key, stable and downright nice, compared to the hard-charging, life-fast-die-young actor types like Paul Walker or Heath Ledger, whom subsequent generations would crown as their own James Dean. Rather, it was his character Dylan McKay from the soapy teen drama Beverly Hills, 90210 who embodied the cool-outsider masculinity we forever associate with Dean (as well as Marlon Brando, Dean’s own idol).
Also, he looked like this at the height of this teen heartthrob status:
As someone noted on Twitter about Perry’s passing, the Dean comparisons may be overdone and hyperbolic, but that doesn’t make them inaccurate.
In a series about rich, genetically blessed teenagers in the most well-known symbolically wealthy hood in Los Angeles, Dylan McKay, with his tycoon criminal father, was the richest of them all — and by far the most complicated, a foil to the pretty-boy, earnest, ethical do-gooderism of Brandon, the other male lead (also a teen heartthrob, played by Jason Priestley). Brandon worked on the school paper and cared enormously about being good and honest. When Dylan even bothered to show up to school, he rolled up in his Porsche 356 Speedster in the standard bad-boy uniform: white T-shirt, well-worn Levi’s, leather jacket, off-the-charts hair of the sort most men would kill for.
While I know Dean is the go-to comparison, within the universe of the Brandon or Dylan question the show inhabits, I often think of them as the male version of the Jackie or Marilyn archetype women often find themselves trapped in. If Jackie (Brandon) is the straight-laced society woman you marry, Marilyn (Dylan) is the troubled femme fatale, so aloof as to be unknowable, the one you take to bed.
But Perry’s Dylan embodies the Dean spirit more fully. Significantly, he updated our understanding of how timeless that brand of brooding masculinity can be in any era. Dylan’s bad attitude about school, authority and anything resembling middle-class values fit both the 1950s Dean and the ’90s apathy and existential dread so often finger-pointed at Gen-Xers, always accused of never being bothered enough to care.
Dylan was too cool to sweat all the stuff you were supposed to sweat in life: grades, sobriety, growing up to become some kind of adult working stiff. But he wasn’t a shallow pretty boy. The remote, beautiful male character with an inability to participate in the world as others do shows up over and over again onscreen. Sometimes the man underneath that pose is unmasked and revealed to be nothing but a style piece with no substance. Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) on My So-Called Life, for instance, another remote and beautiful male character sporting teen angst from the ’90s, looks painfully cool even just leaning against a wall, but he ends up being a dumdum who can barely read.
In contrast, Dylan’s character, partly attributed to the fact that his onscreen mother is a hippie, is a Renaissance type who reads literature and likes classical music and gets art and is philosophical. Like every good bad boy, there is the requisite implied depth and sadness in his tough, troubled act, suggesting a painful past you’re unlikely to uncover. It’s a recipe that’s repeated over and over again in teen dramas.
The hook of men like this both on television and in real life is that they are convincingly complex in a world that constantly renders men’s needs and concerns as cartoonishly simple. Perry didn’t play Dylan as an emotionally unavailable cad. He played him as sweetly wounded. After all, Dylan isn’t really a loner as the series progresses. He falls in love, seeks refuge in female relationships and still throws in emotionally at every turn, even getting married in a later season. It ends tragically — how could it not? — but compared to the other rich kids on the show whose problems mostly involve not getting everything they want right away, Dylan McKay’s eternal struggle to make peace with himself and reconcile the way he’s forever sealed off from the happiness everyone else finds so easily is the closest thing the show had to a literary quality.
What makes revisiting Luke Perry’s portrayal of a ’90s Dean particularly interesting today is that it comes in an era where every facet of masculinity has been called into question and we’ve watched men shed that kind of act in exchange for a more beta version. We still see Dean’s brand of masculinity as iconic, and we can’t seem to stop romanticizing it onscreen, in part because what the character does that a real-life bad boy never can is wear those contradictions so well. If only real-life bad boys were actually that cool and interesting — and not, as we now understand them, damaged by cultural conditioning that thwarts their growth.
In real life, though, we grow less and less tolerant of such men by the decade, even understanding that it’s a form of toxicity that prevents men from experiencing real intimacy and love. In other words, today’s James Dean type of character would just need to admit he should get some therapy and deal with his shit. We would require far more self-awareness from him, and we’d all be rooting for him to change.
Which is why unlike the other actors we anoint as James Dean types, the more remarkable thing about Luke Perry the actor is that his real life doesn’t mirror that character at all, even though it’s his most defining role.
If you read the accounts regular, everyday people have of him, you will find remarkable anecdotes about a down-to-earth, open-hearted man who made silly faces at babies, embraced dogs warmly and enthusiastically, and later in life, after he moved to Nashville for a spell, was even volunteering during a historically shitty flood the city experienced.
We may never stop crowning new Deans, and needing them to give our teenage selves an enduring brand of aspirational cool to help explain away the impossible angst of that time in life. But the way Perry lived his real life, with such humanity and warmth, shows us that such characters will also always remain just an act, something to grow out of.