In just 3 films, James Dean grew as actor

Commentary

September 30, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse." The postwar hipster slogan that director Nicholas Ray popularized in his 1949 picture Knock On Any Door applied with startling directness to Ray's most famous star, James Dean, who played the title role in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), the filmmaker's epochal misunderstood-youth movie.

Dean died 50 years ago today at age 24 when his Porsche 550 Spyder crashed into a Ford. Roughly two hours before, Dean had been cited for driving 65 in a 45 mph zone.

Dean became the first pop celebrity to be called "forever young." And he was just beginning to mint his classic image of teen rebellion. Warner Bros. released Rebel Without a Cause, his second film, a month after his death, and Giant, his third and last film, a year later.

He made his debut in Elia Kazan's East of Eden earlier in '55, playing a supposed bad seed with a huge core of feeling. From that film on, Dean drew on the same yearning for frank, fluid and emotional masculine characters that Brando tapped into with Kazan in On the Waterfront (1954).

Dean, unlike Brando, put an emphasis on feral youthfulness. And Dean had the perfect wild-child instrument to express it. His face was angular and somehow soft. Its profile was more V-shaped than his torso, but the boyish features and whipped-puppy eyes were funnels for internal anguish and mischief.

"His face is a piece of sculpture," Kazan said later, "so is his body." What Dean's character in East of Eden wants most of all is the love of a father who doesn't know how to love his son.

"The moment Dean appeared on the screen, they went crazy," Kazan recalled. "... Then I realized, that even though the picture was set during World War I, Jimmy had caught something very precise about that very moment in the Eisenhower era. It was the way kids felt toward their fathers at that time." In Rebel Without a Cause, the father is a doofus, not a patriarchal tyrant. But the lack of genuine connection is similar, and so is Dean's physicality.

However, the glory of Dean's career - and the reason he earned his legend - is the quantum leap that he made under George Stevens' direction in Giant. As Jett Rink, the disreputable Texas ranch hand turned fabulous oil tycoon, Dean created a character as unsentimental and emotional, as unique and influential as any in American movies. He speaks in a sometimes comic, sometimes moving mumble that presages Benicio Del Toro's in The Usual Suspects.

And when he stomps out the outline of his small parcel of land in giant steps, he makes you feel the birth of pride in ownership.

He keeps Jett's Achilles' heart hidden from most of the others, but we see that he longs for beautiful Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), the wife of rancher "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson).

A lot of Dean's successors have been adept at "crazy, mixed-up kids" - Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 The Outsiders (just released on DVD) is full of them. But consider how little success in the past 22 years the young stars of that film - Ralph Macchio, Matt Dillon, C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise - have had in reaching seasoned manhood on the movie screen. (In War of the Worlds, Cruise is still an overgrown jock.)

Dean made that transition in just three movies. He should inspire actors not just with his peerless interpretations of embattled juveniles, but also with his remarkable evocation of a grizzled, wasted old man.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.