Friday, February 08, 2013

Live fast...

Had he lived, James Dean would have turned 82 years old today.

Of course, had he lived to see his birthday this year, he would probably not be the acting legend he is. He would have gone on to appear in many more films than he did, and some of them would have been bad films, and probably some of his performances would not have lived up to the standard he set in the three roles he is famous for: Cal Trask in "East of Eden", Jim Stark in "Rebel Without a Cause", and Jett Rink in "Giant". I say this not to discount the obvious talent he displayed in those roles; it's just the law of averages.

Those three roles, of course, are not the only ones Dean played in his short, legendary career. He played (mostly minor) roles in a fairly lengthy list of television dramas in the early fifties. However, some of those performances have been lost, and most of the ones that aren't lost are rarely seen. He also appeared on Broadway twice, in "See the Jaguar" in 1952 and in "The Immoralist" in 1954, and in three off-Broadway productions. In films, besides the three he is famous for, there were uncredited roles for him in four other films during 1951 through 1953.

And then there is this (very silly) Pepsi commercial, which was made in 1950:

But, these are the films, the performances, that will stand as James Dean's legacy. First, a scene from "East of Eden":

And from "Rebel Without a Cause", along with Natalie Wood:

And, from "Giant", with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson:

James Dean received posthumous Academy Award nominations for his performances in both "East of Eden" and "Giant".

While, had he lived, James Dean would undoubtedly, as I said earlier, turned in performances that would not have been anywhere near award-calibre. But, I wonder, what would he have done with his talent, had he managed to survive to act another day.

I think it's interesting. I avoided seeing any of James Dean's movies for years simply because I had heard so many glowing descriptions of his work in them, and I didn't think anyone could live up to those kinds of accolades. But, then, one night "Rebel Without a Cause" was on, and I watched it. And, yes, the movie is definitely a part of it's time, and seems dated in a lot of ways. But still, Dean's performance in it is compulsively watchable. So I sought out "East of Eden" and "Giant" as well, still expecting to be disappointed on some level. But I wasn't.

If you haven't seen these three films, you should. I'll confess that "Giant" is not my favorite of the three, and I don't recommend it as highly. But "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause" are both worth watching, and James Dean's performances in them are a major reason why they are so watchable.


Audrey Humaciu said...

I really enjoyed Rebel, and I think Sal Mineo was better than Dean. I know, blasphemy. Interestingly, Mineo's career turned out the way you describe Dean's as probably ending up.

Giant annoyed me for some reason. Which is weird because I love all of the stars.

Haven't seen East of Eden, but you gotta love Steinbeck.

littlemissattitude said...

Oh, I know exactly why "Giant" annoyed me. Four hours of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. I can only take either one for a limited period of time. And I know that, for some people, that's blasphemy, too.

The thing with James Dean is, he apparently had zero inhibitions, which sometimes served his acting very well, and occasionally served it not very well at all. He also had "it", that thing that an actor or other performer either has and doesn't and usually can't be defined or described any other way. That has a tendency to cover a multitude of sins, and he was able to get away with things on-screen because of it that other people (coughMarlonBrandocough) just couldn't, at least in my opinion.

If you see "East of Eden" sometime, I'd be interested in what you think of it.