Vintage Hunk: James Dean
James Dean is a cultural icon who has been so overly praised, almost deified, that it is difficult to separate over 50 years of idolatry from the actual qualities he possessed; plus, Dean's talents are difficult to assess because he only starred in three movies.
For gay fans, there are the tantalizing rumors that Dean was gay or bisexual. Numerous books have asserted that not only was he gay but that he used this to advance his career. However, that's all conjecture at this stage, so rather than discuss any of it we will simply concentrate on the three famous films that are the cornerstone of his legend.
James Byron Dean was born in 1931 in Marion, Indiana, but he and his parents moved to Santa Monica, California when he was young. Dean's mother died of cancer when he was 9 and he was shipped back to Indiana to live with his aunt and uncle. He became a moody, mediocre student but excelled in sports. After graduation he returned to California and enrolled at UCLA where he lasted one semester. Dean quit to pursue acting and landed a few bit movie roles before heading to New York and entering the now legendary Actors Studio. Television parts followed, then a Broadway role as the pansexual North African houseboy in The Immoralist. Hollywood soon came calling and the great director Elia Kazan cast him in East of Eden, based on John Steinbeck's famous novel.
East of Eden (1955)
Dean worked for three of the most talented directors in Hollywood: Elia Kazan, Nicolas Ray and George Stevens. Of the three, Kazan was the most renowned and talented. Kazan had already won two Oscars for directing Gentleman's Agreement and On the Waterfront. On Broadway he was equally impressive with his direction of the classics Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire. In Eden, Kazan made Dean a star by tossing out most of Steinbecks' long multi-generational novel and concentrating on Cal Trask, the emotionally troubled son of puritanical Adam Trask, played by Raymond Massey.
East of Eden is a mesmerizing film. Dean was given the role of a lifetime and gave a truly groundbreaking performance. Jo Van Fleet won an Oscar playing Cal's dissolute mother who runs a whorehouse, while Massey was perfect as the father who can't or won't accept his son's attempts to love him. In real life Massey could not stand Dean, considering him unprofessional and overly emotional, and Kazan used this to shape Dean's performance. Dean has several bravura scenes in East of Eden, including the penultimate one where he tries to give his father money for his failed irrigation scheme. When rejected, Cal grabs his father in a nakedly emotional plea for love. Legend has it that most of this scene was spontaneous and it shows in Massey's shocked reactions. Dean was truly a revelation in all of his "big" scenes. Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift had already paved the way for this type of acting, but Dean's emotionalism was overpowering; after his death he received a posthumous Best Actor Oscar nomination for this role.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
This seminal movie about middle class juvenile delinquency is the most famous Dean film. Rebel is good but its fame rests on its great cast of doomed stars— James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo— and its release date. Rebel opened in October 1955, one month after Dean died in his infamous car wreck near Paso Robles, California. Teenagers flocked to see the late actor on screen, and both Wood and Mineo reaped the benefits as they became the keepers of the Dean flame. Both actors were wonderful and received Oscar nominations, but Dean was truly impressive as high school outcast Jim Stark. Delinquency in mid-century Eisenhower America really came to the fore in 1955, and Rebel portrayed upper middle class white anguish. What also makes it so intriguing is the gay character of Plato, so touchingly played by Mineo. Plato seems totally in love with Stark and such an openly gay subtext was groundbreaking in 1955.
Is Rebel Without a Cause a great film? No, but it was groundbreaking in so many ways, mostly due to director Nick Ray's ability to get outstanding performances from Dean, Wood and Mineo.
Dean's last film was a Texas melodrama based on Edna Ferber's best selling potboiler. Director George Stevens was still editing the film that September day when news came that Dean had died in a car accident. Like with Rebel, that timing would help with getting moviegoers into theaters.
Stevens had made a number of great prewar comedies like The More the Merrier and the first Hepburn/Tracy film Woman of the Year. He came back from the war deeply touched by all the horror he had seen, so most of his films from then on were dark and serious epics like A Place in the Sun and Diary of Anne Frank. Stevens won an Oscar for directing Giant but the almost four-hour film is a mess, with Dean playing second fiddle to stars Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Dean and Taylor bonded during the film, while closeted gay actor Hudson reportedly loathed Dean and the feeling was pretty much mutual.
Dean played Jett Rink, the poor white trash tenant farmer who strikes oil on his little parcel of land. In the second half of Giant all the actors have to age 20 years and the results were pretty ludicrous. Dean and a gorgeous young Taylor are about the only things in Giant worth noting, but it was still a huge hit, and almost two years after his death Dean received his second posthumous Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Had James Dean not died, would he have gone on to a long and great career like Paul Newman, a man who inherited some of the roles earmarked for Dean? Probably. Dean was obviously enormously talented. Whether his mercurial personality would have allowed him to maintain a career is debatable. If Dean was gay would he have ended up like Rock Hudson living a secret life?
We will never know. What we do have are three impressive performances that reveal an actor whose looks and talent will always make us want more.