James Dean was a method actor who has become legendary because of the image he created and the relative short span of his career which was ended by a tragic car accident. His only three starring roles were in fact in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant. His moody and intense performances as alienated young men and a powerful oil tycoon won him two posthumous academy award nominations. This further helped to solidify his legacy.
East of Eden (1954)
In his first great film role, James Dean plays a rebellious son named Cal Trask who lives with his father and brother Aron in Salinas. Directed by Elia Kazan from the Steinbeck novel, the movie chronicles Cal’s struggles in the shadow of his favored brother Aron. Despite good intentions at first, Cal is constantly rejected the praise that his brother garners. Thus embittered, he lashes out at his brother, falls for Aron’s girl, and turns their father’s world upside down. With his performance Dean brings alive the character who is himself an allegory for Cain. Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, and Jo Van Fleet all deliver good performances that play off Cal. Overall this is a classic adaption of a classic author.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
A film starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, Rebel Without a Cause follows three teenagers who are confused and conflicted about their lives. Dean is Jim Stark, the new kid on the block and he meets Wood only to get mixed up with her friends. First it starts with a switchblade contest at the Griffith Observatory but the stakes get bigger when they compete in a “Chickie Run” over a cliff. Dean lives but the other boys dies in the accident. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Dean and Wood’s characters gravitate towards each other. Their new-found friend Plato tags along as they hold out in an abandoned mansion for the night. However all does not bode well and Jim is eventually devastated. All is not for naught however because Jim’s father (Jim Bachus) vows to be a better parent then he was before. Following his breakthrough in East of Eden, Rebel would be the movie that defined Dean’s short career. His line “your tearing me apart!” would further define the angst felt by many teens at the time.
This is an epic film that stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, with direction by George Stevens. It shows the ongoing conflict between a rancher (Hudson) and his former hired hand who becomes rich off oil (Dean). As Jett Rink (Dean) exclaims, he becomes even richer than the rancher Bic Benedict (Hudson) ever dreamed. The relationship escalates when
Rink makes a rude remark to Leslie Benedict (Taylor), and some punches are traded. From this point on the three main characters slowly grow older and the Benedicts have children. In his final screen appearance, Dean’s character is suppose to give a speech at a large banquet. However he is so drunk he falls flat on his face a complete wreck. Giant was ahead of his time by giving commentary about the race relations with Mexicans. It also took young actors and progressively made them look older, something that was quite unusual. Although this was Dean’s final movie I think it can be said he came full circle. He began as a youth in East of Eden and by the end of Giant he was an old man.