Since we began our website in 2011 we’ve written more than a dozen blogs about James Dean, much of it critical although Joe tends to be more forgiving than does Frank.
Skepticism about this “acting legend” arises when you consider Dean’s meager output, and the fact his self-involved acting style, so trendy back then, doesn’t wear well today. In our Sept. 22, 2011 blog (James Dean — Really A Good Actor?) we noted the following and then delivered an opinion.
Dean made three pictures: 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 at age 24 in Sept. 30, 1955. 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 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 in East of Eden.
Taking a hard nosed look at Eden and Rebel today prompts the notion that Dean’s performances in each film are certainly competent, but unquestionably marred by self indulgent acting schtick that was considered at the time the mark of a truly serious actor.
There is an annoyingly infantile aspect to Deans’s acting, particularly in Rebel, that’s offputting. Some contemporary viewers might react by giving his character — and perhaps Dean himself — a swift kick in his pants with the admonition, Grow up!
Thus when The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories From Those Who Knew Him Best crossed our desk, we sighed: “not another James Dean hagiography.” Our concern was groundless. This just-published book from Chicago Review Press, adeptly edited by Peter Winkler with a forward by George Stevens Jr. (son of Giant’s director), is the most balanced and courageous portrait of Dean we’ve seen.
We’ll review the book in detail in a future blog, but we can immediately urge Dean followers — both fans and critics — to get this book and enjoy it.
It’s structure is notable. Editor Winkler has assembled from sources ranging from Fifties Hollywood “fanzines” to tell-all memoirs of various movie notables material shedding insight into aspects of Dean’s much-abbreviated career. A complete picture of the actor’s short life gradually emerges, excerpt by excerpt, and it is by no means all flattering to Dean.
One excerpt caught our eye right away: Editor Winkler unearthed it from a 1980 memoir written by the late Merv Griffin (along with Peter Barsocchini), Merv: An Autobiography. Griffin was, among much else, a business mogul, a former singer, a tv talk show host and classic movie lover.
Here’s what he wrote about Humphrey Bogart’s initial meeting with Dean:
Dean never looked at Bogart. He said ‘Hello’ and stared at the floor. For a minute and a half Bogart tried to carry on a gentleman’s conversation; he paid Dean a great compliment by saying he admired the young man’s technique.
Dean said, ‘Yeah? That’s okay by me.’
Suddenly, Bogart grabbed Dean by the lapels, nearly yanking him off the ground. ‘You little punk, when I talk to you, you look into my eyes, you understand? Who the hell do you think you are, you two-bit nothing!’
Then Bogie shoved the stunned actor away and stormed off the set.