James Dean triple feature (East of Eden - 1955, Rebel Without A Cause - 1955, Giant - 1956)
In old Hollywood
James Dean's final on camera performance comes near the end of the grand oil drama Giant. Dean, a successful oilman and alcoholic, throws himself a great banquet to celebrate a hospital and hotel opening in his name and before he can give his hooray for me speech, he passes out drunk in front of the whole room. Some time later he comes to and with the room deserted, gives a slurred, garbled few lines from the speech he was to deliver, before falling off the stage into some tables and passing out again. It's an amazing performance, Dean such a naturalistic and bang on actor that the lines he delivered really were too slurred and garbled to be understood. Nick Adams, a friend of Dean's, had to overdub the lines after the fact as the producers of the film felt the lines were important enough to at least be understood. Why didn't Dean overdub his own dialogue? Eight days after filming this scene, he was dead. He was 24.
Dean's story is one of those old Hollywood legendary tragedies that is so legendary and so tragic, it's hard to believe it actually happened the way it did and not the product of some old Hollywood scribe. A story of a talented star that burned so bright for such a short period of time before being unfairly extinguished, an impact felt which has never wavered.
Dean starred in only three films, all of which are tales of rebellion, all of which showcase his amazing naturalistic talent, all of which are considered classics today. But these three films weren't Dean's only contributions to cinema. He had uncredited bit parts or walk ons in a number of films before being considered for East of Eden. One of those was as a background soldier in Samuel Fuller's Fixed Bayonets. Before that he was in a Pepsi commercial. He also did some stage acting, which led to the attention of Hollywood and his first role in Eden, an adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel. Steinbeck, who was never far from the casting and production of the film, was reported to have loved Dean's performance in the film, but hated Dean himself.
The film version of Eden is actually only about a third of the whole novel, choosing to focus mainly on the Cain and Abel-like story of Dean's Cal Trask and his tumultuous relationship with his father Adam. As in the bible story, most of Adam's love is reserved for Cal's brother Aron, while Cal, desperate for his fathers attention and approval, somehow only seems to be able to curry his disappointment.
Leonardo DiCaprio has said that before filming a movie, he watches (or used to anyway) East of Eden again and again, studying Dean's performance. I personally feel this is the lesser of Dean's three starring roles, which isn't to say it's a bad one. Dean is an incredibly naturalistic actor, known for his improvisational style and realistic delivering of dialogue. He reminds me very much of young Marlon Brando. It's perhaps no big surprise that Brando's game changing performance in 1954's On the Waterfront seems to inform the performances that Dean gave a year later.
The movie itself is well told and actually quite a bit darker than you would think for 1955. It's full of the kind of teen angst and anti-authoritarian overtones that would fill Dean's next, most iconic film, Rebel Without A Cause.
Rebel Without A Cause, which was released seven months after East of Eden, and one month after Dean's death, hit the world like a hammer. Firstly, it came out on the heels of Dean's fatal car crash. Second, it was controversial, depicting teenagers doing horrible things to each other like driving cars off cliffs and getting into knife fights and into fist fights with their parents. There were also people that didn't like that the film had cast someone like Dean as the rebellious teen. Dean was cool, incredibly good looking and he bucked authority. Girls wanted him, boys wanted to be him. This was dangerous.
The film has been praised for its realistic portrayal of the trials, anger and confusion associated with one's teen years. And while that might have been true in 1955, it doesn't resonate as strong or true in 2012. Some of the violence and shock associated with the film upon its initial release seems mild by today's standards. The film exists as a snapshot in time, rather than a blanket statement for the growing pains (emotional and physical) one faces going from a tad pole to a horny toad. Dean's performance is, again, a thing of great power and beauty though.
Grabbing hold of the momentum of his career with both hands, Dean went right into his next movie, his best movie, Giant, starring Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Giant is an amazing movie and is aptly titled. A huge movie in length, production and scope, it was a smash hit when it came out, foreshadowing the tragedy of The Dark Knight by raking in great sums of money because it's a good movie, and more sums of money because of Dean's recent passing. Quite a feat for a movie almost three and a half hours long. Then again, if Gone With The Wind, Ben Hur, and later Lord of the Rings have told us anything, it's that length is irrelevant if the quality is there.
When the movie was released James Dean was the third billed star, the superstardom following his death and now brief but powerful legacy dictates that his name would certainly be first on the bill if the film was made today. In Giant Dean plays a ranch hand, again a symbol of rebellion as he constantly clashes with his boss, played by Hudson and lusts after his new wife, played by Taylor. Dean is awarded a small piece of land through a tragedy and mines it for oil, which he finds, making him rich and powerful. Dean shows real versatility in this role, as his character changes from idealistic, poor ranch hand to oil baron. He also grows old in the film, Dean actually dying his hair grey and shaving part of his head to create a receding hairline. Method acting before the term was widely known.
Giant is like Gone With The Wind in Texas, or The Sound of Music, without the singing. A family drama that stretches through decades and tells a story of success and greed. You can't help assuming Giant has a sizeable impact on Paul Thomas Anderson's recent oil baron masterpiece There Will Be Blood. A compliment to both films.
Dean, like Monroe, like Cobain, like Winehouse, like Ledger, was a hugely talented star who died far too young. Although Dean's was a more tragic cause, as his wasn't self inflicted. Contrary to decades of popular belief, Dean wasn't even speeding when he was sideswiped by an inattentive driver. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But it wasn't just Dean's untimely demise that told people he was a star, he had all the qualities of one. The characters Dean played and the way he played them, weren't overly different from one another. From the way he sat, or slouched, to the way he mumbled his lines in that half care way, to the way he clashed with authority in every film, Dean was a punk rocker before there ever was such a thing. A symbol of cool rebellion and individuality, a legend in that sad, tragic, old Hollywood way.
East of Eden: ****
Rebel Without A Cause: ***