The Hollywood star who made the most impact with the fewest movies is, without doubt, James Dean.
Few Hollywood stars of any era have posthumously endured as long and as persistently as has Dean. This on just three starring roles.
Here we are 65 years 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. 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.
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.”
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 — Marlon 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?