He only starred in three films. Three. East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Giant (1956). So how did James Dean become such a transformative legend? An icon for the ages? An actor readily lumped in with the standard-bearers, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift? From three performances! One outstanding film, one influential but barely above average film, and one interesting and ambitious but ultimately long-winded mediocre film.
Lemme tell you how. It’s called lightning in a bottle and in Hollywood, as in most of life, timing is everything.
James Dean came to Hollywood in 1954 at age 23, travelling on an airplane for the first time in his life, and sitting alongside director Elia Kazan, fresh off his Oscar win for On The Waterfront. The farm boy from Fairmount, Indiana and the New York auteur going West to make something happen – something exciting. To make a film adapted from a lengthy John Steinbeck novel titled East of Eden. ‘Gadge,’ as the director was nicknamed, knew what he had in the young actor and he literally held his hand to California and tracked his every move (some think Dean may even have been bipolar), both living on the Warner Bros lot, to insure that this bundle of neurotic, self-loathing, angst-ridden energy would actually get to the set so the director could capture it on film. Lightning in a bottle.
The New York Herald Tribune wrote this: “Kazan lets his characters unfold slowly, and when they finally erupt into anger or violence, you know exactly why. This is the secret of East of Eden.”
The Library Journal proclaimed: “East of Eden is one of the best films of this year or any year, a film which gives deeply disturbing insight into what psychologists call the feeling of rejection.”
Hmmm. “…erupt into anger,” “…the feeling of rejection.” What Elia Kazan discovered in James ‘Jimmy’ Dean was a deep deep reservoir of these elements. A wounded boy who harbored great resentment and anger towards his own father for handing him off to relatives at age nine after the death of his mother, and ultimately towards people in general. A young boy who desperately craved affection and praise to feel secure and achieved it through the manipulation of eratic emotional mood swings and outbursts.
But lest this morph into an essay on understanding and psychoanalyzing the tragic icon known as James Dean, let’s stick to the work he did as an actor and examine why he captured the imagination of audiences in the 1950’s and then transcended the era to be as recognizable worldwide as Elvis or Marilyn Monroe, two performers who also died prematurely but at least left substantial resumes in their wake.
The first impression that James Dean makes in the opening minutes of East of Eden is both complex and utterly simple. Complex emotionally, he is clearly wounded and troubled, in his head with everything, almost like a stray puppy who’s been left on the side of the road and just wants a crust of bread and a bed to crawl under. But his physical presence is no more complicated than this: he looked cool in the clothes and knew how to move with an apathetic shrug that must have seemed irresistible to teenaged girls and begged to be imitated by teenaged boys. Though only 5 foot 10 inches tall, ‘Jimmy’ Dean was a Gap model, an Abercrombie & Fitch window display, and a GQ coverboy from the moment he appeared on the silver screen. Not a bad first impression.
So there’s that.
“Talk to me, father. I gotta know who I am, gotta know what I’m like, I gotta know…” Dean’s ‘Cal’ pleads to his father, ‘Adam’ (Raymond Massey) across the table, desperate to learn anything about the mother who abandoned him.
Dean is great in these moments. So honest and raw. Exactly what Kazan saw in him in New York, and what his first agent, Jane Deacy, knew was ‘limitless’ potential. A searcher, tormented and piercing. He was considered a Method Actor, and in many ways he was the quintessential, but that also might imply a certain degree of premeditated practice of process, of training and discipline. I submit he was either not a Method Actor at all or he was the only one that ever mattered.
Sure, Dean stumbled into the classroom environment of the prestigious Actor’s Studio. He might even have sat and listened to Stella Adler or Lee Strasberg, watched a young Paul Newman or even Marilyn Monroe grapple through scene work, experimenting with the ‘sense memory’ work required to utilize “The Method,” a technique demanding that the actor actually live the emotion before he can portray it, not to imitate but to become the part, by drawing from the reality of your own life. I think that came so easily to James Dean that exposure to this type of work must have seemed like an exercise in redundancy to the new kid in town. The kid who showed up with more emotional baggage and introverted curiosity than the Big Apple had probably ever seen. Kazan confirms this in David Dalton’s Dean bio James Dean: The Mutant King: “Dean was scarcely at the Studio at all. He came in only a few times. I remember him sitting in the front row, a surly mess. He never participated in anything.”
“A surly mess.” Hah! I love that. Can’t tell you how many actors I’ve seen in technique classes who would literally kill to have someone refer to them as such. More than Brando, more than DeNiro or Pacino or Jack, I see actors who clearly are aiming to somehow give the illusion they are as tormented or as downright apathetic as James Dean. Just watch how ‘Cal’ walks behind his brother ‘Aron’ and his girlfriend ‘Abra’ in the beginning of East of Eden. Absolute apathy. Surly and messy.
But then take a look at ‘Cal’ and ‘Abra’ (wonderful Julie Harris) in the lettuce field on his lunch break. Dean’s intense listening ability. Listening on an enormously deep empathetic level that could never be taught. The scenes in Eden between ‘Cal’ and his father are the hallmarks from this film, but to really appreciate and understand James Dean’s gift, check the quieter moments – or the playful ones like the scene with ‘Abra’ at the carnival – where his uncanny ability to physicalize his intentions are front and center while he listens and reacts to the information he is processing. A genius of sorts.
East of Eden made James Dean an immediate film star. Rebel Without a Cause would take him up into the stratosphere, probaby loftier than he deserved and certainly further than he could handle.
Director Nicholas Ray wasn’t setting out to make just another teen angst film. He had higher aspirations for the material and was willing to step outside of the norms of Hollywood casting and protocol to bring the story authenticity. He and his producer even went so far in their initial casting interviews with teen actors to ask questions like “How did you get along with your mother?” Not sure which side of the head I would smack the producer who asked me such a loaded question. But Ray’s approach was specific and by design, he aimed to sink himself into the world of his story’s adolescents – a Method director you might say.
Rebel Without a Cause opens on Hollywood’s bright new star lying on the cement staring at a toy monkey, like an orphan waiting to be scooped up and swaddled.
Yet there is a moment in the early minutes of Rebel that shows just how complex and immediate James Dean’s significance landed with young viewers. In the police precinct when Dean’s ‘Jim Stark’ steps to ‘Plato’ (Sal Mineo) and offers him his jacket, Natalie Wood’s ‘Judy’ is visible through the lieutenant’s office window and the triangular composition of the three actors clearly makes up a nuclear family – of juveniles albeit – but a family nonetheless, with young ‘Jimmy’ Dean clearly positioned as the father figure.
So already, just from the strength of one amazing performance as a totally lost and wounded child in East of Eden, Dean catapulted himself into such a prominent place in pop culture where he could be both orphan and saviour. Can’t think of another actor who represented both. Take it a step further and examine the multi-generational character arc he displays in George Stevens’ Giant, and it almost seems designed by fate that this movie star named James Dean gave it all to us so quickly and completely, with such a sense of urgency, that he exited stage left with his mission accomplished.
And again, there is no denying that James Dean always looked so cool. The red jacket in Rebel Without a Cause? Crazy cool. The cowboy hat, open shirt and blue jeans in Giant? Cowboy cool. He even made the drunken oil tycoon look chic.
While I’ve never really bought into the notion that Dean worshipped Brando to the point of mimicking him, at times it’s hard not to be reminded of the almost inaudible mumbling Brando made famous in his early work. Check Dean’s ‘Jett Rink’ as he climbs into ‘Bick’s’ (Rock Hudson) car in his opening scene in Giant. “Ain’t nobody king in this country. Ain’t nobody, no matter what they might be thinking.’
James Dean loved racing cars – and he was good at it. No surprise there. His film contracts forbid him from the sport while he was in production, but once filming wrapped, ‘Jimmy’ put the pedal to the metal. On September 30, 1955, James Dean was driving his Porsche west on U.S. 466, near Cholame (Calif) when an oncoming car swerved into his lane and the two cars collided head on. Dean was rushed to the hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The following day he was to scheduled to drive in a race in nearby Salinas, the town ‘Cal’ lived in in East of Eden.
The Porsche 550 Spyder (one of only 90 in existence at the time) was nicknamed ‘Little Bastard.’
“I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off,” says ‘Cal’ to ‘Abra’ in East of Eden. Later ‘Abra’ pleads to ‘Cal’s’ father, ‘Adam’ “You have to give him some sign of love or he’ll never be a man.”
Then in Rebel, a different longing from his home life. “If I had one day…when…when I didn’t have to be all confused. And I didn’t have to feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace.”
From one of his letters to fellow NY actor and girlfriend Barbara Glenn, dated April 26, 1954: “Must I always be miserable? I try so hard to make people reject me.”
One final word on the Method Actor topic. Kazan makes mention in Dalton’s book of a trick Dean used to create his nervous energy – he would go the entire day without a bathroom break. That’ll sure make you fidgety, but hardly what would be considered “The Method.” I heard from a colleague a few years back who worked on Abel Ferrara’s King of New York (1990) that Christopher Walken used to keep a bottle of Tabasco sauce in a FedEx envelope next to the camera assistant’s box. He would pull it out and take a quick snort before his closeups. Not sure what it did for the always interesting and ceaselessly watchable Walken, but it worked for him – and the camera.
Actors do what they need to do to show up, get in to makeup and costume, step in front of the crew and perform for the camera. James Dean matters to those of us who share his dream and to the rest who witnessed his work because he left us pure gold to examine and marvel at. A glimpse into a young man who desperately needed to come to Hollywood because it was the Dream Factory and his dream was to put on screen all that he was feeling but struggling to communicate. Reading his sad and exasperated letters home it is clear that he did not come for the women or the beaches or the money. He had a full instrument of emotional turmoil and an empty heart – empty and abandoned from the loss of his mother and from never feeling loved or wanted by his father, never getting the approval we are all in search of.
Pretty decent legacy. And he achieved it in only three films. His mother would have been proud – and his father should have been.