Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your Classic Movie Guys, STILL wondering today about the possibility that James Dean’s legend as an actor is now considerably overblown.
(We first addressed that topic way back last Sept. 22 — via our JAMES DEAN – really a good actor? blog.) Well, on April 18 we received a response to that blog from reader Taru, who gently took us to task in thoughtful fashion.
Some backround: Indiana born, Dean’s truncated career in its early phase was spent mostly in television, taking various roles in several of those marvelous live-drama telecasts of Fifties. His Hollywood movie career began slowly.
The actor had un-credited bit parts in at least a half dozen comedies and dramas ranging from director Robert Wise’s highly regarded The Day The Earth Stood Still to Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets (both in 1951). Those were followed a year later by a bit in Deadline – USA starring Humphrey Bogart.
The pictures that made Dean were three: director Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause with Natalie Wood (both in 1955) and George Stevens’ Giant, released after the actor’s death. Dean was nominated in the best actor Oscar category for the first and the third but didn’t win.
For our money, Rock Hudson walked off with Giant, handily out performing costars Elizabeth Taylor and Dean. It was pretty much all Dean’s show in the other two films although Kazan wisely surrounded the actor in his starring debut with an extraordinarily strong cast — notably Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet (who won an Oscar for her role), Richard Davalos and Burl Ives — in East of Eden.
Dean’s performances in each film are certainly competent, but unquestionably marred by Methody acting schtick that was considered at the time the mark of a truly serious actor. There is a self-indulgent, almost infantile aspect to Deans’s performances, particularly in Rebel, that’s off putting. Some contemporary viewers might react by giving his character — and perhaps Dean himself — a swift kick in his pants with the admonition, Grow up!
Always an actor of force — which Dean was not — Marlon Brando seemed to get away with this type of thing. Dean does not. You wind up admiring his actorly touches from a distance rather than identifying with the characters he is playing.
One conspicuous flaw was beyond Dean’s control. He was just too old for the parts he was required to play: an angry, alienated high schooler in Rebel and the “bad” teenage son vying for his father’s affections in Eden. (Dean was 24 when he made both pictures.)
Taru disagrees agreeably:
Yes, I disagree, not that it matters.
To me, (Dean) doesn’t look out of place because he seems younger than his age, and of course, he’s relatively short. Dean’s performance in ‘Rebel’ is infantile because, well, that’s the way his character is; flailing and crying about.
What caught my attention is his ability to portray feelings in a way the audience is almost forced to identify with (even if they aren’t similar to what they are actually feeling). As you said, this is very different from Brando’s stoic quality.
In his last movie, ‘Giant,’ I’m afraid Dean isn’t very convincing as an oil miollionaire, partly because of the hideous makeup and his posture. Other than that, I think he did exellent job in all of his roles.
And people often tend to forget that Dean actually had a career in the theater before his debut in film, and most of the time he was praised profoundly, for his portrait of the Arabic ambiguous dancer boy in ‘The Immoralist,’ for example.
It is extremely hard to know how his career would have proceeded had he not died, but even if his major movies are otherwise hopelessly dated, his performances are not.
Thanks Taru. We may have to re-think our original position.
Meanwhile, this Dean arcana from the recently published Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, by Scotty Bowers with Lionel Friedberg. It’s a randy tell-all about Bowers’ gay and bisexual prostitution operation that began after World War II.
Bowers writes that he encountered Dean in various social contexts at various times in the Fifties, and declares that he was not only gay but a self-involved boor to boot.