How James Dean’s 7 Hours On The Big Screen Made A Lasting Impact

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.

Dean was a fan of fast cars

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.

struck it rich!: James Dean in ‘Giant’

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.

James Dean and Natalie Wood play troubled teenagers in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’

Where the Four Billion Dollar Movie Franchise Began

In the late nineties when I was a wee lad me and a group of school friends decided to check out the latest Star Wars movie called ‘Episode I: Phantom Menace’ (1999). I didn’t know much about the franchise except that the bad guy in the first picture had a really bad asthma problem, and as the 1999 film was a prequel to the original iconic movies I thought it would be a good place to start my Star Wars viewing journey, especially with all the hype surrounding it. How wrong was I? Not only did I and a few mates fall asleep in the cinema, but during the course of the movie I stumbled across the most annoying character ever created for the big screen – Jar Jar Binx. It’s safe to say I was scarred from the experience and it put me off from seeing the rest of the movies.

So when I saw that the original film entitled ‘Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope’ (1977: AFI 1998 #15, 2007 #13) was featured on the AFI’s top 100 list of all time I wasn’t best pleased. But with the excitement of the release of the seventh installment Sky Movies had a whole channel dedicated to the released films so I couldn’t avoid it – and on Sunday night after playing Junior Monopoly with niece with a slight hangover I decided with much persuasion from my brother to take the plunge and finally see how it all began. (well in fact it is the chronologically the fourth movie, but the first made – it gets confusing).

Iconic characters on a mission to save Princess Leia

Everyone with some movie cultural awareness is familiar with the opening credits to the original Star Wars movie, so even though I knew what to expect I found the content of the text to be a hard read filled with so many Star Warisms that I had to pause the TV to and re-read the introduction – which was not a good start. What puts me off sci-fi and fantasy films is that they tend to be filled with jargon and terms that is not used in everyday language, so I lose concentration and my mind begins to wonder.

The original Star War movie is considered by some as the best 

But my short expansion span diminished soon after because from the then on the movie was jam packed with action and spectacular special effects which were impressive by today’s standards let alone in the 1970s (although a work colleague and avid Star Wars fan kindly pointed out the effects had been re-worked since the original release, but I’ll choose to ignore that).  The synopsis of the movie is a pretty straightforward good versus evil tale with Hans Solo (Harrison Ford), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) playing the heroes who are a mission to rescue Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from the evil Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire.

Darth Vader makes a terrifying entrance 

In my review of American Graffiti (1973: 1998 #77, 2007 #62) which was also directed by Lucas I made the assumption that the characters were more relatable than the ones in Star Wars, for which I was told off for by a friend who said I had to see Sci-fi classic before making such ludicrous comment. Although I hate to admit it I must say he has a point – the best thing about the movie is that pretty much all the characters are strong and help unfold the plot until the very end. Despite previously seeing clips of Darth Vader and knowing that the voice over was Mufasa from the Lion King (1993) he genuinely scared me and the friendship between robots C-3PO and R2-D2 genuinely touched me.

Auditions for the new Star Wars in London 2013

Auditions for the new Star Wars in London 2013

So it’s safe to say my second experience so watching a Star Wars movie was a far more pleasant one – I’m not convinced the movie has transformed me into a massive fan like the millions single fifty-year old men living in their parents spare room, but it has made me regret that I didn’t partake in auditions for the new movie ‘Episode VII: The Force Awakens‘(2015) when they held auditions in Twickenham Stadium and obstructed my parking space outside my gym a few years back. Who knows I might have been a part of biggest movie franchise of all time. For its undeniable cultural significance, innovative special effects and unforgettable characters the picture gets a 4.5 out of 5 from me.

Do You Belong Here?

My friend Sunny who told me on the weekend that when he reads my blogs he is hoping to one day find a review on a film he’s actually watched – I guess he is expecting something like ‘Iron Man(2008)’ or ‘Training Day (2001)’ to be featured.

Perhaps in the twentieth anniversary there might be some representation of the modern comic, superhero, fantasy genre which seems to be lacking in the current list. But I can put my money on a film like ‘Superman (1978)’ being added long before ‘The Avengers’ (2012) is.  Not because it is necessarily better or more popular than the blockbuster starring Scarlett Johansson, but it did the genre first and is therefore arguably more culturally significant, which is a major criteria for the movies to be considered for the countdown.  Just as I explained why ‘Jaws’ (1975, AFI 1998: #46, 2007:#56) deserved its spot on the AFI top 100 list – It influenced countless of (mostly terrible) horror movies that followed suit or why ‘On the Waterfront (1954, 1998:#8, 2007:#19)’ is regarded so highly on the list. Not only because is it a terrific movie, but it has the timeless “I could have been somebody” line that everyone seems to know (but sadly more and more non classic movies lovers are forgetting where it originated from).

I’ve probably so far watched around sixty classic movies featured on the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies of all time lists and so I’ve agreed that most films earned a place on the prestigious countdown.  But there are some movies that I just don’t understand how they made the cut.

Fonda and Hopper speak on Jack Nicholson’s role in ‘Easy Rider’

For example I don’t see what the big deal is about ‘East Rider (1969, 1998:#88, 2007:#84)’, a coming of age movie about two bikers who travel through the South. It stars Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda who with the money they made through drug smuggling go on an adventure across America where they meet some characters along the way. One of them is pre-frame and very young Jack Nicholson who even though is my favourite modern movie star and plays the role of a drunken Lawyer very convincingly, doesn’t regain my interest in the movie. Although the feature gives a good insight to life in late sixties America the plot is really thin and at times I had to rewind the film because I was getting distracted. The ending is the biggest shock of the film and comes totally unexpected and is definitely the highlight of the film.

Trailer for ‘Easy Rider’

I guess the movie was very unique and taboo busting at the time because it dealt with the hippie movement, recreational use of drugs and promiscuity – all pretty tame by modern standards and done better by Midnight Cowboy (1969, 1998;#36, 2007: #43). I give the movie 2 out of 5 and that’s mostly for the killer soundtrack!

Jack Nicholson seals the show in ‘Easy Rider’