Few Hollywood stars of any era have posthumously endured as long and as persistently as James Dean.

Here we are more than a half century after the actor’s death (at the age of just 24), and his chiseled but oh, so vulnerable good looks still crop up regularly in photos, ads and images.

People are still fascinated by his brief life and career. He is often mentioned in the same sentence as Marlon Brando. (That’s Brando in the center above with Dean to the right. Frankly, we have NO IDEA who that other guy on the left is, nor the identity of the young winsome young lady in the lower center.  If YOU know, please let us know.)

Small gatherings of fans congregate each year at the exact spot of Dean’s death along Route 46 at Chalome, California, where the actor’s Porche 550 Spyder slammed head-on into another vehicle. The accident occurred in 1955,  just as his movie career was skyrocketing.

Hello, everybody.  Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your Classic Movie Guys, here again and wondering today about the possibility that Dean’s legend as an actor is now considerably overblown.

Indiana born, Dean’s truncated career 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.

Somewhat amusing today given Dean’s legacy as a very serious, very angry actor is his participation in “Sailor Beware,” the 1952 Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy, and as a soda jerk in director Douglas Sirk’s 1952 comedy “Has Anybody Seen My Gal,” costarring Rock Hudson and Piper Laurie.

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.”

Taking a hard nosed look at “Eden” and “Rebel” today prompts the notion that dying early might have been a terrific career move.

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 acting, 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 — Brando seemed to get away with this type of thing where 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, and looks all of it onscreen.

Wood, perfect for her high school role in “Rebel” (she was 17 at the time the movie was made) delivers a convincingly natural performance, the best in the picture.

As writer-critic David Thomson notes, “Knowing what Dean meant (to audiences) in 1955-56 make it possible to understand how Valentino once moved viewers to the quick.” Was Dean the Rudolph Valentino of his time?

Whatever, Dean’s best work comes across as distractingly dated today.  Disagree? Let us know pronto, loudly and clearly.

 

 

 

 

 

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