Friday, September 30, 2011

In Memoriam: The Anniversary of James Dean's Death (1931-1955)

James Dean
Eight years ago, I caught Rebel Without A Cause on TV late one night. I was exhausted that day. I had planned on going to bed early, 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 film was just starting to really take off so I decided, despite my exhaustion, to watch this much-beloved teen angst classic. I figured it would be another Hollywood classic that I could check off my must-see list. I hadn't counted on actually being able to stay wide-awake into the early 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 among the Hollywood elite. This, in large part, is thanks to Dean's performance. I found him striking, in an odd way, but I was much more intrigued by his unique performance.

Around this time I'd only recently become enamoured with Marlon Brando (the previous year I'd watched The Godfather for the first time -- it was a great introduction to 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 and very Dean-esque. From the inspiration he got from Brando he came up with his own style and helped revolutionize acting in film.

Drawing from real life experiences and tragedies, Dean utilized these in his character creations so that the audience could relate and sympathize with his characters, such as Cal Trask (East of Eden, my favourite Dean film and performance).

Rarely do I watch a film and walk away from it absolutely fascinated and in awe of the talent before me. Young actors today so rarely go out of their way to bring something fresh and original to their performances, which is why they won't have the enduring cult power of Jimmy Dean. Watching Dean that night, in the early morning hours, I was saddened at the loss of life and talent. I didn't know much about him at the time, but I knew he'd died young and tragically. I've been a loyal fan, ever since.

Jimmy Dean embodied the charisma, beauty and talent that most actors can only dream of achieving for themselves. Even though he only left behind three cinema features, they will never be forgotten. He was the epitome of masculine-cool. He was ahead of the game both in his activist-humanitarian nature and the way he portrayed a conflicted young rebel. He helped make it okay for male characters to cry in film. Gone were the days of the alpha-male, like John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart. Dean helped usher in a new generation of young, Method actors who saw performance as an art form worthy of their sweat and tears.

It's been 56 years since his death in a car accident at the age of 24, 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 t-shirt -- but to his real fans he was a first-class movie star.

They don't make celebrities like Jimmy anymore.

Here's a rare clip of Dean's screen test for East of Eden (1955).


  1. He is one of the great ' what if's ' isn't he? I mean if he had lived it would be interesting to see how his career panned out. Just look at Brando's career with its highs and lows as an example.
    My only problem with Dean is OK in 3 films he displayed real talent but can he be considered one of the true greats after only 3 films?? He needed many more years and films to be really judged. He certainly is iconic considering his brief life though, I'm certainly not demeaning his talent. Its just ufortunate it was cut so short before it had the chance to be really analyzed.
    I feel the same way about Grace Kelly. Only 12 films and an Oscar and yet she is considered a true 'Great'. I just can't bring myself to feel her a great after such a brief career no matter how strong the talent. ( I can't believe I'm saying that because I love Grace endlessly! )

  2. I think his career would have had the normal trajectory of any great actor -- he would have had his fair share of great films and lousy ones.

    A lot of people ask that question: After only three films, can he really be considered on par with a Brando or a Stewart or anyone along those lines? I think that, arguably, he can. Why? Because in *only* three films he left such an impression. There have been many young actors who died after a short film career -- like Heath Ledger or River Phoenix -- however; they likely won't have the same impact, long-term, that Dean did.

    Dean was "lucky" in that he became famous in a time of great upheaval in Hollywood. Films were changing drastically, specifically when it came to performances. All one has to do is watch Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 to know that the landscape of film acting was about to change completely.

    Brando made it okay for men to portray softer and more sensitive sides on film. Dean followed his path. As a result, when Dean died he was only one of a very, very small and select group that was testing out this new "method" way of acting. It left a lasting impression because, after only three films, he was able to out-act a lot of Hollywood veterans who couldn't keep up with this new way of performing.

    Just think: if he was that great and experimental in his technique after only three films, he only would have gotten better.

    I don't think a long career makes someone "great". I think it's what they were able to do for the world of cinema in the time that was given to them.

  3. I agree a long career doesn't make an actor great! But it does give a fair indication of an actors worth. I mean for all we know Dean might have gone off the boil after three films and became an ordinary actor. We will just never know. But yeah if he had lived his career trajectory would have mirrored those of many others. But then again I have that litle niggle in the back of my mind! We just never know what life is going to throw up!
    But I tell you what...99% of the 'actors' in the world today could do with just a half of his and Brando's talent because modern actors in my opinion can't hold a candle to them...Heath and River who for example?

  4. Hmm, that's interesting. Heath Ledger and River Phoenix are very different actors from Marlon Brando and James Dean; however, I think all four were tremendously talented.

    Initially, I never thought twice about Ledger when he was in crappy teen movies in his early days. But from the moment I saw Brokeback Mountain I knew he had something special ...which he later proved with Candy and The Dark Knight. All three were extraordinary performances and Ledger reportedly used the Method technique when preparing for his role as the Joker.

    But, yes, I agree that, overall, the majority of actors working in Hollywood today couldn't hold a candle to Brando or Dean. And that might be the highest compliment that we can pay them. :) We will never know what Dean's future career would have held but he and Brando were true artists.