If you have the ability to provoke controversy nearly 60 years after your death, you definitely qualify as someone exceptional.
And certainly exceptional was James Byron Dean, the actor who died at just 24 in 1955, after making one of the biggest intial career splashes in Hollywood history.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here again with MORE on Dean’s merits (or demerits).
As you must know by now, we at Classicmoviechat have had our say about this much-remembered actor (starting with James Dean — really a good actor, Sept. 22, 2011), and much of what was said was not flattering. Here’s a sample:
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. 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 were 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!
Okay, we had our say. Now it’s our readers’ turn. We received at least five lengthy missives from readers (thank you!) expressing various views of Dean’s ability as an actor and mostly taking us to task on many points.
So today and tomorrow, we’ll run these reader emails — and then (promise) take a break from debating Dean.
From Greece, we received this email from Dimitris Arnoutis-Oikonomakis:
Who would tell him to grow up? Tom Cruise? Brad Pitt? Johnny Depp? Julia Roberts? Probably John Wayne but he’s dead. Or, Clint Eastwood but he’s talking at chairs these days. We live in a post-modern age when men are metrosexual and vulnerable, and youth is idolized and prolonged, so his performance is not only enduring the test of time but is more contemporary than ever.
Maybe some modern parents do understand kids these days. But this society doesn’t understand its denizens which are forever kids and multiply day by day. There is something weird and dark within us all behind closed curtains. Households can be living hell and Dean brought it all out there. (And with) with ancient tragedy ”pathos” regardless of actor studio method. Several French legendary directors like (Jean-Luc) Godard or (Francois) Truffault also considered him an acting genius.
I also think it IS hard to acknowledge he was a superb actor because his acting is more like the voice in our head. His gestures express what we often feel but not dare express. His movies move us in a way (that is) somewhat disturbing. I haven’t watched them for decades because I’m afraid of letting the repressed teenager out of his cage now (turning 35 in a couple of weeks).
That is my point of view I hope my arguments were legit.
Not only legit, Dimitris, but most welcome.
We’ll finish out today with this from Jules:
I think that James Dean really was a great actor, and he had an extremely rare gift. As a teenager, I can relate to (his) characters in “Rebel” and “East of Eden” so well. I understand why teenagers went so crazy for him in the ’50s.
There’s still a good amount of teenage angst amongst us kids these days, and James Dean movies still resonate with us. I love Marlon Brando and other actors from the ’50s but there’s a vulnerability that James Dean brings to his movies that no one else can pull off.
Just my opinion, but I don’t think those three movies would have been the same without him.