About six years ago I caught Rebel Without A Cause on t.v. late one night. I was exhausted that day. I had planned to go to bed but I was struck by the image of James Dean, lying on the ground with a wind-up toy monkey, in the opening credit sequence for the film. I recognized the iconic red jacket. It was around this time that my obsession with classic film was just starting to really peak and take off so I decided, despite my exhaustion, to watch this much-beloved teen classic. I hadn't counted on actually being able to stay wide-awake into the wee morning hours.
The film itself is significant to 1950s film history. While parts of it may not have aged very well it still deserves its place amongst the Hollywood elite. This, in large part, is thanks to the performance of Dean. I was intrigued by his performance. He had reminded me so much of a young Marlon Brando.
Around this time I'd only recently become enamoured with Marlon Brando (the previous year I'd watched The Godfather for the first time and fell in love with Brando's talent). Dean reminded me of Brando, despite their differences in acting style. Dean clearly idolized and tried to mimic Brando, yet he managed to make all three of his film performances unique. From the inspiration he got from Brando he came up with his own style and helped revolutionize acting in film in the 1950s. Drawing from real life experiences and tragedies, Dean utilized these emotions when creating a character so that the audience could relate and sympathize with someone like Cal Trask in East of Eden, my favourite Dean film and performance.
Brando and Dean were both amongst the first to use the Method Approach in film acting. It originally started out as a theatre movement in the 1930s in which actors attempt to seek out the emotional "truth" of the character they are portraying. In order to effectively present these emotions and psychological torment, actors were often forced to look to themselves and their personal lives for inspiration. Brando was famous for remaining in character on set, even going so far as to remain in the character of Terry from On the Waterfront for the duration of filming, both on and off set.
Rarely do I watch a film only to walk away from it absolutely fascinated and in awe of the talent before me. Young actors today rarely go out of their way to bring something fresh and original to their performances, which is why they (hopefully) won't have the enduring cult power of Jimmy Dean. Or have millions of loyalists who declare Brando as the greatest actor of all time.
Marlon Brando and Jimmy Dean embodied the charisma, beauty and talent that most actors can only dream of achieving for themselves. They were the epitome of masculine-cool. Both were ahead of the game in the way they portrayed conflicted young rebels. They helped make it okay for male characters to cry in film. Gone were the days of the alpha-male, like John Wayne; all blazing guns and snarls. Dean and, especially, Brando helped usher in a new generation of young, Method actors who saw performance as an art form worthy of sweat and tears. With trailblazers like Brando and Dean, would we have had the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and Viggo Mortensen today?
It's been fifty-four years since Dean's death in a car accident, yet time has not diminished his star. To some people he may be a product, just another young dead celebrity face on a poster or a purse, but to his real fans he was a first-class movie star.
They don't make celebrities like Marlon and Jimmy anymore.