“Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today”, that was James Dean’s philosophy. Had he still been alive, Dean would have just turned 83. He would have been a Hollywood legend, who broke into the industry when he was young and molded himself into one of the finest actors of his generation. Alas, we can only imagine Dean’s later successes. At the age of 24, having just finished work on his 3rd film Giant alongside Elizabeth Taylor & Rock Hudson, Dean was killed in a car crash. The greatest tragedy being that Dean, whose second and third films were released posthumously, never lived long enough to see himself become a cinematic icon.To this day the image of James Dean in jeans and a red jacket, with a cigarette in his hand and a smoldering look of raw masculinity on his face, epitomizes the idea of cool. In the years since his death, Dean became a figurehead for teenage rebellion. His defining performance in Rebel Without A Cause spoke to a forgotten generation, who were living beneath the shadow of those who believed themselves older and wiser. Yet despite being remembered for it, this is not who James Dean aspired to be; he wanted more than just stardom, he wanted to be an actor.
By just glimpsing at his early life, it’s clear where James Dean found the emotion that drove his 3 seminal performances. He never had a good relationship with his father and, following the death of his mother, was sent to grow up with his aunt ans uncle. Throughout school, Dean displayed a passion for drama and the arts. Upon his graduation, he moved back to his father’s house in California and eventually began to study Theatre Arts at UCLA. However, his father furiously believed that acting was a waste of time, which led to arguments that eventually saw James kicked to the curb; their relationship never recovered. After moving from California to New York and having successfully auditioned for a place in Lee Strasberg’s legendary Actors Studio, Dean eventually landed a couple of roles on Broadway and received rave reviews for his performance in ‘The Immoralist’. It was here that Dean garnered the attentions of director Elia Kazan, who was fresh from making On The Waterfront and looking for someone to star in his new film East Of Eden.
From the moment you first glimpse the confused and earnest Cal Trask, the hypnotic power of Dean’s acting style dazzles on the screen. All of Dean’s performances burn with his character’s desire for parental affection and social acceptance, yet despite his Jim Stark of Rebel Without A Cause earning most of the praise, it’s his more poignant and understated performance in East Of Eden that may well be his strongest.Partly adapted from the second half of John Steinbeck’s novel, Kazan’s East Of Eden is an echo to the legend of Cain & Abel. Cal is an embittered young man vying for the affections of his father, who Cal believes favors his brother Aaron. Additionally, Cal has also just discovered that his and Aaron’s mother, whom they both believe died when they were young, is actually alive and running a brothel in a nearby town.
Kazan described Dean’s body as “almost writhing in pain sometimes”. He was a method actor who used personal emotions to instill his performances with greater realism. As Cal’s isolation and anguish grows, Dean masterly manages to contort his body into uncomfortable positions that emphasize Cal’s anxiety. Few actors have ever been able to achieve an Oscar nomination with their first performance, but the one they awarded Dean here was thoroughly deserved.
There’s an awe-inspiring air of confidence in Dean’s performance. The role of Cal called for him to build a character that strived to be respected by his peers, yet who was continually held back by his own adolescent ignorance. No doubt drawn to the role through his own past experiences with his father, Dean’s intensely visual turmoil infuses Cal’s thirst for fatherly acceptance with an affecting poignancy. It’s without doubt the film’s strongest element; the finest scene coming towards the end, when Cal’s father Adam (an unassuming Raymond Massey) rejects Cal’s gift of money. The image of Cal childishly grabbing on to his father is truly moving; that Dean improvised the moment singlehandedly proves his acting prowess.
It’s a shame that Kazan’s film feels too disjointed as a whole. The sprawling, multi-layered narrative rarely feels like it has any balance, with many of the story’s themes getting lost and forgotten about as the film plunders forward. Plot threads are established and explored, but many fail to have a resolution. In the end, the only story you end up truly being able to invest in is that between Cal and his father and even the ending there feels a little too simple, as if writer Paul Osborn had run out of ideas.
When East Of Eden opened it received rave reviews, with many praising Dean’s superb performance. Warner Bros. extended his contract and in 1955 announced he would play Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause, directed by Nicholas Ray.
To this day, the iconoclastic effect of Rebel Without A Cause is clear to see. It has been referenced in numerous songs, films & TV shows since its release; James Dean’s famous red windbreaker and blue jeans is even the inspiration for Fry’s outfit in Futurama. Few films can be said to have truly defined a generation, but Rebel Without A Cause did; it gave a voice to America’s teenagers who, up until that point, had been pretty much dismissed. Dean’s Jim Stark epitomized the bottled-up rage of an unheard generation; when he screamed, “you’re tearing me apart” to his parents, everyone stopped and listened.That Ray managed to bring together a cast of actors who were similar in age to the characters they were portraying added to the film’s authenticity. It’s certainly a dark story, but one that’s peppered with an adolescent humor that balances the film’s tone. This childhood nature can be regularly glimpsed in Jim’s character, which helps to accentuate his sudden explosions of aggression.
Despite being rooted by similar problems, Jim Stark is a very different character to Cal Trask. Not only is he a tougher, more rebellious sort, he is also far more charming and charismatic. Dean brings as assured balance to the performance, always maintaining an air of youthful innocence that demands our sympathy. While he may be anti-authoritarian, he also wants to grow; an early scene between Jim and Edward Platt’s Ray Fremick shows how content Jim is to flagrantly disregard those in command, yet also how much he craves guidance.
Ray perfectly pitches his film; blending themes of dreams, delinquency and love within the younger generation. Moreover, the film is admirable in how it explores the different elements that lead to lost adolescence. Jim is troubled by the way his parents fail to listen or take an interest in him, simply content that buying him whatever he wants will make him happy. While Natalie Wood’s Judy suffers from a lack of craved fatherly affection. One of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, seemingly glossed over by many, comes when Judy tries to hug, but is dismissed by, her father. Wood’s widened eyes, which cry out in loneliness, are haunting to look at; though Dean is understandably what the film is remembered for, the sterling work of the supporting cast (particularly Wood & Sal Mineo) also deserves recognition.
Even before he had finished work on Rebel, Dean was already eyeing up his next project. East Of Eden had cemented the young actors reputation and with the lead role in Rebel, Dean was already being considered as one of Hollywood’s young acting elite. Yet his next move proved that Dean truly was a performer far more interested in the art of his trade than the fame it would bring. Dean took the role of Jett Rink, a disrespected cowhand turned oil baron in George Stevens’ sweeping epic Giant.
Giant in name and giant in nature, the film is a sprawling classic that follows two generations of cattle ranchers led by Rock Hudson’s Bick Benedict & his wife Leslie, played by a tremendous Elizabeth Taylor. While it may seem like a step back for Dean in terms of his career, it was a role that characteristically suited his style. Like both Cal & Jim, Jett is someone searching for peer acceptance. Ranch owner Bick continually dismisses him as a loose cannon, refusing to show any admiration or gratitude towards him. In the end, Jett has to use his own fortune in order for anyone to show him respect; even then, Jett’s final actions end in a drunken mess that he would no doubt regret later.
On the surface Giant is a soapy melodrama, an epic love story between characters that are married within the first 10 minutes. Yet the film remains immersive and supremely entertaining throughout. William C. Mellor’s cinematography of the ranch’s vast landscape is hypnotic, perfectly accentuating Leslie’s moments of loneliness and isolation early on. The performances are universally tremendous; particularly a young Dennis Hopper playing Bick & Leslie’s son Jordan, who dreams of achieving more than his father wants him to. While elements of the script become a little heavy-handed at times, notably the racial bigotry between the ranch owners and the Natives who have settled on the land, the story never feels unbalanced, despite examining a wide-range of themes.Jett is certainly a mere third wheel in the film’s narrative, yet Dean’s performance hangs over the entire movie. As in his previous performances, Dean instills realism in to Jett’s lonely outsider. We sympathise with him because no one else will. However, when Jett acquires a piece of the land on the Benedict Estate and strikes oil, our feelings towards the character change. Dean embodies the persona of a man blinded by his own fortune with malevolence. It’s an entirely new area of performing that Dean had not explored before, and a true salute to his tremendous acting talents that he remains just as fascinating to watch.
Quite where Dean’s career would have gone from there is anyone’s guess. What we know is that within just 3 performances, Dean became one of the figureheads for a new style of acting that continues to inspire people today. His method for fully engaging in a role through his own emotional understanding gave greater authenticity to his films. Those who simply read from the script could never offer such substance; in that sense at least, maybe he could have been considered a rebel.
He was also just a boy and the tragic nature of his death continues to reverberate in Hollywood. In just 3 roles, Dean was able to conquer the world and inspire a generation. Whether it was his dream or not, James Dean has lived, and will live, forever.
East Of Eden ★★★
Rebel Without A Cause ★★★★★