The last day of September this year marked the sixtieth anniversary of the death of on one of the most iconic movie stars to ever grace the screen. I arguably use ‘iconic’ loosely when writing up my experiences of doing the American Film Institute challenge, but James Dean is the epitome of a movie star – even his death from a tragic head on car collision at the age of twenty-four is legendary. People to this day pay their respects to the site where he died in California and I can bet that a large majority of those visitors have never seen a film he had starred in.
What made this film star who only managed to do three movies in his lifetime and never won an Oscar remembered by critics and the public as one of the all time greats? Two of his movies were featured in the AFI top 100 movies of all time list and he even managed to bag himself a spot in the Top 25 male stars of the Golden Age where he is in the company of much more prolific stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart whose body of work over the years earned them a place on the list. But what separates James Dean from these Hollywood heavyweights is that I can almost guarantee that a casual movie fan will know who Dean is and there is a fair chance they will not have a clue about Bogart or Stewart unless you mention ‘Casablanca’ (1942: AFI 1998#2, 2007 #3) or ‘It’s a Wonderful life’ (1946: AFI 1998 #11, 2007 #20).
It’s a mixture of things that has given James Dean immortality and placed him in the consciousness of all popular culture fans:
1. Firstly like Peter Pan he never grew old – he will always be known for good looking and cool outsider in his most famous role ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ (1955: AFI 1998 #59) and not that difficult and eccentric overweight actor who didn’t bother to learn his lines that Brando became later in his career.
2. He had a timeless style – you could never go wrong with a pair of Levis, a white t-shirt and slick back hair. Unlike stars of the 80’s who had mullets or ridiculously long side burns from the 70s, actors from the 50s had a cool and classic style. James Dean’s look was never dated which is why he is still so marketable and his pictures would not look out-of-place on a teenage girls bedroom wall along with the Channing Tatums and Zac Efrons of today.
3. Finally he was a damn good actor – Although he never received an Academy Award he was nominated twice for East of Eden (1955) and for Giant (1956: AFI: 1998 #82). His portrayal of troubled Jett Rink in ‘Giant’ who was infatuated with Elizabeth Taylor’s character was intense, powerful and showcased his natural acting ability.
Unfortunately Dean would not be able to see the final product of his epic and perhaps most ambitious film as he died before the film was released. But luckily he managed to complete the film co-starring Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor who were bigger and better known actors at the time. The media hype surrounding Dean’s death propelled the movie to be a huge hit when it was released a year later. The American drama tells the tale of a wealthy Texan family in the 1920s until the Second World War. Dean plays a handyman hired by the Hudson and he soon becomes obsessed with his wife played by Taylor – a love triangle develops and things get more complicated when Dean discovers oil on his small plot of land and becomes filthy rich.
I didn’t know much about the plot before I convinced my mum she would like it and to watch it with me, but feared it could have been a Western (you know how I hate those). Thankfully it wasn’t and at times it reminded me of ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939: AFI 1998 #4 2007 #6) for its elaborate storytelling and like the seminal movie starring Clarke Gable you need to set aside the whole morning to complete the movie. The story even highlights racism Mexican immigrants faced in the USA during the first half of the Twentieth Century which often gets overlooked in Hollywood. For the ambitious screenplay, excellent cast and getting a glimpse of how Dean would have looked when he was older I give the movie a 5 out of 5.
Elizabeth Taylor speaks about ‘Giant’ co-stars Dean and Hudson
In contrast ‘A Rebel Without A Cause’ ensures Dean remains youthful as teenager Jim Stark who has trouble fitting into his new high school. He clashes with popular students which results in the famous car race scene that has been redone a thousand times by copycat movies. The chemistry between Natalie Wood and Dean is perhaps more convincing than with Taylor in ‘Giant’.
The movie oozes iconic from the famous ‘tearing me apart’ scene in the police station to the episode in the cinema – it is clear that this film was the prototype of the countless teenager rebellion movies that were released over the last sixty-years. I would argue that Dean’s depiction of complex and perhaps mentally unstable Stark was his most challenging role. This flick is a must see for any fan of cinema – it’s beautifully shot, acted and highly influential – for this reason I also give it 5 out of 5.
A Rebel Without A Cause Trailer
James Dean never got the chance to branch out and attempt roles outside his comfort zone (he seemed to always play the underdog with an emotional past) but to be fair he never had the chance to step outside the box. Would he have been a great musical star or action hero? We will never know, but he has left a huge impact on films and popular culture that most actors would struggle their whole career to achieve and so his films deserve their place on all time great lists.