The current losses that the film industry has had to endure, it got me thinking about those actors, lost so long ago, whose spirit and influence can still be felt. Most notably for me is James Dean. Today marks the 55th anniversary of his sudden and tragic death in a horrific car accident along a California highway.
James Dean only made three movies in his short lived career but what he lacked in quantity he more than made up for in quality. He was the rebel, the loner, the awkward fellow who seemed uncomfortable in his own skin and who seemed to want to just shrink into himself, but his presence was bigger than the screen his movies appeared on.
Dean’s first movie to be release was Elia Kazan’s 1955 film East of Eden. The film is based on the John Steinbeck novel and focuses on the story of a father and his two sons who compete for their father’s love and attention. Dean’s character, Cal Trask is the black sheep of the family. Always trying to measure up against his brother Aron’s accomplishments. He struggles socially but finds he’s got a good head for business and innovation. Secrets are exposed which results in family strife as the tensions between the brothers and father escalate and finally reach a boiling point in the films climax.
East of Eden is my favorite of Dean’s movies. Even though he was relatively unknown at the time of filming, his portrayal of Cal and the angst he suffered were done with the precision of an old pro. You felt his pain and cheered him in his triumphs and hoped that things would just work out for this lost soul. East of Eden was released shortly before Dean’s death, but the role earned him a posthumous Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
The second and perhaps most iconic film in the Dean canon was Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause. Rebel was released in October 1955, shortly after his death. Dean’s role of Jim Stark was that of a troublemaker, forcing his family to relocate where he has to start fresh at a new school. His acting out is a veiled attempt to find the love from his parents that he’s craving. Finding solace in a girl from school and also getting a bit of hero worship from another boy with a tortured soul, Jim finds himself in trouble once again.
Dean co-starred in Rebel with Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and a very young Dennis Hopper. This film gave us several of the iconic shots of Dean that have been immortalized as well as the perfect representation of teen angst. Dean gave his character dimension as he played the tough guy, but also played it down with vulnerability that lurked right beneath the surface. You can see the different levels of emotion from anger to sadness in one scene as he screams “I have the bullets”. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I suggest getting it and watching it.
Giant would be Dean’s third and final film. Directed by George Stevens and released in 1956, Giant was an epic film with two suitably epic co-stars. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor played along side of Dean and even though they were well known veterans, Dean held his own on screen with them both.
Giant tells the story of Texas ranch-man Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict Jr. who, while on a horse buying trip to Maryland, meets, falls in love and marries Leslie. They travel back to Bick’s Texas ranch to start their life. Dean plays Jett Rink, a cowboy and Bick’s rival who becomes an oil tycoon after his well hits big. The film’s main focus are the trials and tribulations of family life with the Bicks. The movie is told over two generations, and it may feel that long as well at times. Even though the film focuses on the Bicks, it’s Jett Rink that is the most memorable. Giant dealt with themes of racism, materialism, and conflict but amongst all of that Dean’s star shines bright. Giant also earned Dean his second posthumous Academy Award nomination.
Even though James Dean made just three films in a span of a couple of years, his image is legendary. Even 55 years after his death, his legacy lives on and most people know who is by name and by face. While comparisons have been made, there was only one true James Dean. It would have been very interesting to see where his career may have gone. He may have only made three films, but he definitely left his mark on the film industry.