James Dean remains forever etched as a brooding, romantic figure, the quintessential 1950s teenager thanks primarily to his roles in “East of Eden” (1955) and “Rebel Without a Cause” (1956). Intelligent and projecting a sexual charisma that appealed to men and women, Dean may be best recalled for his three major movie roles, but behind that small output was a serious-minded, disciplined and trained actor.
James Byron Dean was born on February 8, 1931 in Marion, Indiana to a dental technician and his wife. Dean’s father relocated the family to California in 1935 but following his mother’s untimely death from cancer in 1940, young Jimmy was sent back to Indiana to live with relatives. A star athlete in high school, he also excelled in theatrics and was encouraged by the school’s drama teacher Adeline Nall. After graduation, Dean landed his first professional gig, a 1950 TV commercial for Pepsi Cola and then headed West to attend college, but he soon dropped out in favor of pursuing an acting career. After making his TV debut as the Apostle John in “Hill Number One” and landing bit roles in films like “Sailor Beware” (both 1951), he began studying acting with James Whitmore who encouraged the talented neophyte to move to Manhattan and work with famed teacher/coach Lee Strasberg. Heeding Whitmore’s advice, Dean landed in the Big Apple in the fall of 1951 and worked odd jobs (including pre-testing the stunts on TV’s “Beat the Clock”) until he gained a berth at the Actors Studio. He soon was landing roles on stage (“See the Jaguar”, “The Immoralist”) and in many of the live television dramas of the day.
By 1954, Dean was put under contract by Warner Bros. to star in Elia Kazan’s film version of “East of Eden” (1955). As Cal Trask, the troubled son of a wealthy businessman, he perfectly captured the neurosis and jealousies of the character. While Dean did have a tendency toward over-emoting, the cumulative effect of his performance ultimate proves rewarding to viewers and was recognized by the Academy with a posthumous Oscar nomination as Best Actor.
One can only speculate on what heights (or what depths) Dean may have hit had he not been killed in a car accident on the night of September 30, 1955, Combining the sensitivity of a Montgomery Clift with the incoherent, explosive anger and sexuality of a Marlon Brando, James Dean came to epitomize the phrase “rebel without a cause”. His hypnotic, angst-ridden turn in the 1955 film of that name (released less than a month after his death) struck a chord with teenagers the world over and solidified his reputation as the voice of his generation. Dean’s early death forever froze him as that surly but sensitive teenager and made him the epitome of all that was “cool”. His third and last film, “Giant” (1956), was a sweeping generational epic and his strong turn as the lonely tortured Jett (which netted a second Best Actor Academy Award nomination) helped raise the material above its soap opera-ish qualities.
While critics were divided over Dean’s work in his own time (Bosley Crowther in The New York Times called him a “mass of histrionic gingerbread” in “East of Eden” but praised his “stylized spookiness” in “Giant”), history has upheld his popularity and seen dozens upon dozens of emerging actors hailed as “the new James Dean”. A virtual cottage industry for the literary set with over a dozen biographies, Dean and his life also have been plumbed by filmmakers ranging from Robert Altman (the 1957 documentary “The James Dean Story”) to Mark Rydell (2001′s TV biopic “James Dean”). Not since Valentino had a film actor attracted such legions of fans in life and in death.
James Dean movies
Filed Under: Actor Profile