The James Dean Trilogy – Rebel Without a Cause

Rebel Without a Cause (1955, dir. Nicholas Ray)
Starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Dennis Hopper

Where in East of Eden, we have the contorting and convulsing Dean, here we have a more muted and subtle performance, and the one that made Dean the icon that he is today. The film was helmed by director Nicholas Ray, who would not find much more cinematic prominence in his career after this picture. It’s also notable that James Dean was only alive for the release of one of his films, the aforementioned East of Eden. Both this film and Giant were released posthumously and caused many fans to read into bits of dialogue here and there in hopes of gaining some insight into the actor’s psyche.

Dean plays Jim Stark, a young man who has frustrated his parents and forced them to move multiple times because of his anti-social behavior. Jim is not a “bad boy”, as the iconography of Dean has informed pop culture, but more of a quiet, troubled young man. And Jim doesn’t have an issue with figures of authority as long as they show him respect. One of the most remarkable characters in the film is Officer Ray Fremick, who genuinely wants to help Jim and offers him an ear any time he needs to talk. In turn, Jim’s parents are an utter mess attempting to hide this to public.

A scene early on sets of the thesis of the film: Jim and his classmates are attending a planetarium show at Griffith Observatory where the presenter tells them of the sun’s eventual implosion and the earth’s destruction, utter the phrase “Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence.”. This is why Jim is a rebel without a cause, he fights against a system for no reason other than to fight. At one point in the film, Jim is challenged to a game of chicken by school bad boy Buzz. As they prepare to race, Buzz tells Jim he likes him, Jim asks why they are doing this then, and Buzz replies “Well, what else are we gonna do?”

Another interesting aspect of the film is Plato (Sal Mineo), a fellow student of Jim’s whose father has left and whose mother is little involved in her child’s life. The family’s housekeeper is the most concerned person about Plato, as the boy tortures small animals and grows increasingly aggressive and upset. Plato immediately clings to Jim and, as it wouldn’t have been apparent to audiences in the 1950s, has homosexual feelings for the new boy in school. There are scenes where Plato reaches out simply to touch Jim’s shoulder, and when Jim heads home for the night, Plato informs him that there’s no one at his house and that he and Jim could hang out there if he’d like. I found it to be tremendously progressive for a film of this period to feature a character to so blatantly gay and not make him a villainous figure.

The film shows major growth in Dean’s acting ability, as this character chooses to simmer instead of explode. It’s definitely not his best performance, which I believe is in Giant.

The James Dean Trilogy – East of Eden

East of Eden (1955, dir. Elia Kazan)
Starring James Dean, Raymond Massey, Burl Ives

This month, I’ll be looking at the three core works of James Dean’s sadly short career. I didn’t see any of these films until 2007 when, while living in Washington state, I decided to check out Giant from the public library. What I discovered was the reason behind an icon. So often a pop culture figure’s work has been so far removed from our contemporary experiences that it is hard to understand exactly how they became so iconic. I have found that Dean was indeed a brilliant actor with a potential I don’t see in many others.

Dean made his starring role debut in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (based on the novel of John Steinbeck), playing the tragic loner Cal Trask. Cal is the son of Adam, a farmer and brother to Aron. Throughout his life, Cal has been overshadowed by Aron’s accomplishments and looked at as the black sheep of the family. The mother mysteriously disappeared when the boys were children and Cal remembers little of her. The story is a reworking of the Cain and Abel story and mixes it with the gorgeous landscape of Salinas and Monterey, California.

The filmmaking at work here is a unique artifact of its time. Kazan is a deft director who is responsible for such masterpieces as On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. And it was Kazan’s keen eye who discovered James Dean as he was performing on Broadway. Dean was a major proponent of method acting, a technique that transitioned from the more classical theatrical style of acting into a more psychological and physically interpretive method. Method acting bridges a sort of gap between acting and dance. This is seen in the way Dean almost spasms through his performance, he twists and contorts his body in unison with the psychological torment. The character of Cal is stunted mentally and Dean chooses to express that through his movement. Cal is constantly jamming his hands into his pockets, kicking at the dirt nervously, just like an awkward adolescent.

Dean was reportedly very uncooperative on set, and Kazan admitted he would encourage this by antagonizing the actor. Kazan believed that keeping Dean in such a mentally upset state would, in turn, enhance the anger and frustration of Cal on the screen. Dean’s co-star, Julie Harris is credited with truly enhancing the performance by adjusting her own to become more low-key and further highlight the distinction of what Dean was doing. For a first major film performance, Dean delivers in an astonishing way. Method acting was a new and exciting development in theater and its no wonder audiences were entranced with Dean.

Coming up next: I take a look at the film that made Dean an icon, Rebel Without A Cause.