James Dean: An Incredible Legacy

James Dean“Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” – James Dean

 On September 30th, 1955 Hollywood actor James Dean opted to participate in a racing event in Salinas, California. Deciding to break in his brand new Porsche 550 Spyder “Little Bastard” car, Dean proceeded to drive from Los Angeles to the event. James Dean never made it. Despite receiving a speeding ticket earlier in the day, Dean crashed his Porsche head-on into another vehicle in a devastating crash. James Dean was killed instantly. He was only twenty-four years old. Yet despite the fact that his film career lasted barely a year and half, James Dean remains one of cinema’s most legendary and iconic actors. Some of this could be attributed his stunning good looks or his untimely death, but it is more due to what he was able to achieve in such a short span of time. Only starring in three films, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), East of Eden  (1955), and Giant (1956), James Dean cemented himself in history.

James Dean with Silver Porsche
The last photo of James Dean taken alive on September 30th, 1955. He died thirty minutes after this photograph was taken.

This leads to a simple question, why is James Dean considered to be one of the greatest actors of all time despite only starring in three films? Is Dean’s iconic place in history more due to his untimely demise? Or is it because Dean’s personal life is still a huge mystery to many and that keeps his legacy alive? There has been rampant speculation that James Dean may have at least been bisexual, whose high-profile liaisons were invented by Hollywood agents. There is also speculation that James Dean may have been suffering from undiagnosed bipolar syndrome, which may explain his erratic and ultimately destructive behavior. There is even the suggestion that James Dean’s career may have withered away, as suggested by Elia Kazan, who directed Dean in East of Eden. Kazan claimed that due to Dean’s behavior and impulsive acting style, it is likely his career wouldn’t have sufficed as much. While these speculations and what-ifs keep the persona of James Dean alive to an extent, it is actually his film achievements that has made him iconic. His film performances, as minimal as they were, showed a sharp contrast in characterization. Yet despite their variations, these roles boldly speak of who James Dean was as a person. That is why James Dean is an icon. It is because James Dean interjected so much of himself into his acting work that one feels an infinity with him, a connectedness with him. That is a talent no other actor has ever been able to achieve.

James Dean glasses
James Dean was actually very nearsighted and relied on his glasses when cameras were not focused on him.

Even though James Dean was remarkably attractive, he never once utilized sex appeal in his acting. For his style of acting, such a thing was incredibly unnecessary. As Dean once said, “You can do ‘Hamlet’ while performing cartwheels. As long as the audience sees your eyes, you can make the performance real.” For Dean, sex appeal would diminish his acting because it would place focus towards an aspect that had no correlation towards the character he was starring as. What Dean was interested in was providing a performance that was real, felt real, that wasn’t a Hollywood invention. He wanted to be the very character he was playing, to which the only way to achieve that was to apply his own psychology in such roles. That is where the impact of his acting lies, in that there is so much of himself in his roles that such characters he plays feel jarringly real. Furthermore, Dean’s statement is true in that it is his eyes that displays the turmoil of the characters he starred as. Yet even more telling, his eyes convey himself as an individual who was lonely and isolated. His acting very much mirrored who he was, which evokes a heartwrenching experience when watching any of his films.

More importantly, James Dean’s acting and characters spoke to a generation of adolescents growing up in post-World War II America. The 1950’s family dynamic was crafted around the concept of exterior perfection. There was a certain societal pressure to adhere to such an impossible standard. The gender expectations were especially grim with women being relegated to jobs that were considered ‘feminine’ while men were expected to exert masculinity and provide. That was the outward expectation and the narrative being perpetuated upon 1950s American families. Truthfully, the family unit was disastrous with unhappy marriages that stayed together out of fear of being socially ostracized. Teenagers saw their future by observing their parents’ role in society and feared being marginalized. Parents were far from what shows like Happy Days represented them as. Instead, parents were often passive towards their children and typically self-serving. Therefore, the ‘perfect family’ was a facade. This is why James Dean had an incredible impact with the 1950s generation and that has extended to today’s contemporary society. He was a living representation of teenage angst and disillusionment and his movies reflected that. People identified with his acting because they too were experiencing feelings of isolation and social pressure. People weren’t being allowed to be who they truly were due to the expectation of occupying a societal role. James Dean utterly contradicted this notion with all three of his movies and that largely got him acclaim.

James Dean East of Eden
James Dean as Cal Trask in East of Eden (1955)

“I got to know I am!” James Dean declares as Cal Trask in East of Eden. Based off the John Steinbeck novel of the same title, the film focuses on a socially isolated teenager. He is withdrawn, awkward, and aware that others view him as ‘different.’ He sees himself as flawed due to his father’s blatant dislike for him. Thereby, Cal is left believing he lacks an identity since he has no familial foundation. East of Eden tells the story of how Cal Trask seeks to gain the respect and approval of his father by working honestly. However, what makes such a performance impactful is how emotionally conflicted James Dean is in his portrayal of Cal Trask. He played the role with the premise that Cal cannot fully be an individual until his father grants him an identity by accepting him. This absolutely links to Dean on a psychological level considering his own father sent him to live with his aunt after the death of his mother in 1938 when he was nine years old. The death of Dean’s mother haunted him throughout his life. Like Cal Trask in East of Eden, Dean placed his identity with his mother and without her, he was left to fend for himself and was rejected as a result of it. This emotional gap is absolutely translated into his East of Eden performance considering he lacked parental support after the death of his mother. This is particularly why audiences were astonished by Dean’s authentic performance in East of Eden.

James Dean East of Eden 02
One of many scenes James Dean improvised in East of Eden (1955).

What also aided James Dean was his unorthodox style of acting, which was to be impulsive and perform the role as he saw fit. Unlike other actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood, James Dean continually broke away from the script. Contrary to what director Elia Kazan speculated in his autobiography about Dean’s career likely fading away, his improvising skills contradict that claim completely. Kazan, known for his strict direction, was infuriated that James Dean would not comply to his direction. Yet in hindsight, Dean enhanced his performance by trusting his instincts. Again, this links back to Dean’s own psychology and personally identifying with the character he was portraying. For example, the scene of East Of Eden that is pivotal to the film is when Cal Trask’s father rejects him, thrusting the money Cal had worked so hard for back in his hands and is told to get rid of it. The script simply called for Dean to run out of the house in shame, yet Dean didn’t abide by that in the slightest. Instead, in one of the most famous moments of Dean’s career, he becomes incredibly overcome with emotion. He then hugs his father in a tight embrace, sobbing into his father’s chest, as the money falls from his hands and liters the floor. It is a heartbreaking instance that reinforces the reality that Cal Trask’s desperate hopes of being accepted by his father will never happen. This improvised scene is the very definition of acting and correctly knowing when to act on instinct. It is exactly instances like this that ought to function as evidence that James Dean was a masterful actor who would have maintained a tremendous career if he had not died prematurely. As Dean stated, “When an actor plays a scene exactly the way a director orders, it isn’t acting. It’s following instructions. Anyone with the physical qualifications can do that. So the director’s task is just that to direct, to point the way. Then the actor takes over. And he must be allowed the space, the freedom to express himself in the role. Without that space, an actor is no more than an unthinking robot with a chest-full of push-buttons.” It took a certain talent for James Dean to be able to achieve that level of acting, especially in his first major acting role.

James Dean Rebel 01
James Dean in the opening sequence of Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

It is precisely due to that kind of acting that led to the  role that has forever immortalized him, Rebel Without a Cause. Aside from the bad-boy image that Dean represented within the film, there is a deeper, underlying reason as to why Rebel Without a Cause continues to be a film that captivates audiences. It is because the film is a complete rejection of 1950s society, expectations, and conformity. Dean’s Jim Stark was, quite honestly, the average teenager in full view for all to recognize. His performance stripped away the 1950s childhood cliché and replaced it with a gritty portrayal of the conflict teenagers were facing at the time with the expectation to conform to a standard and having no support from parents, who chose to be passive. In many regards, there is a generational gap in Rebel Without a Cause, showing parents avoiding conflict and lying to themselves that all is well. To acknowledge issues would be a deviation from the ‘perfection’ narrative that was being propagated at the time. In truth, teenagers were largely suffering because they lacked an identity. They subscribed to what they thought was the expectation and were growing continually disenchanted with the reality that it would consume their individualism.

James Dean Rebel 03
“You’re tearing me apart!” James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

“You’re tearing me apart!” Jim Stark screams at his parents at the beginning of the film, showing audiences the mental anguish of the character who endures his passive parents who do not want to admit there is anything wrong opposed to himself, who wants to merely be recognized for who he actually is inside. Rebel Without a Cause is wrongly categorized as a ‘bad-boy film’ because it is actually a film that exposes society for its imperfections and indicts those who are complacent in a clearly dysfunctional setting in the hopes that it will self-correct itself. Dean’s Jim Stark is the instigator of that realization, which is why the performance is so impactful. Using his own life as the basis, James Dean chose to take on this role in a psychological way. He decided Jim Stark wasn’t a “rebel” because he was a deviant, but rather because he refused to conform. By choosing to be his own individual and setting his own identity, he was inadvertently labeled as a “rebel.” As Jim says at one point in the film in reference to his parents, “They think I can make friends if we move. Just move, everything will be roses and sunshine,” thereby indicting the passivity of family and expecting someone to conform in order to fit in. As James Dean once said, “There is no way to be truly great in this world. We are all impaled on the crook of conditioning.” Dean’s Jim Stark is not one to abide by that. Furthermore, James Dean dismantled the image of the masculine male in Rebel Without a Cause by crafting his Jim Stark as vulnerable, suggesting that it is acceptable for a man to actually feel something. Therefore, Dean’s Jim Stark shouldn’t be seen as a bad-boy, but rather as a liberator of free thought and expression.

James Dean Giant
James Dean in the famous oil scene in Giant (1956).

This leads to the final attribute about James Dean that should be acknowledged: Vulnerability. James Dean once was quoted as saying, “Being an actor is the loneliest thing in the world. You are all alone with your concentration and imagination, and that’s all you have.” To a degree, this quotation explains two things about the psychology of James Dean. First, while extraordinary as an actor, it wasn’t his true passion. Tragic enough, his true passion for car racing would end his life. Second, that loneliness Dean speaks of is emphatically expressed in his final performance as Jett Rink in Giant. Deliberately taking on a supporting role that would deviate from the character-types of his previous two roles, Dean starred in Giant as the ranch hand who strikes it rich with oil. Despite the role being supporting, James Dean utterly stole the three-hour epic from its other cast members due to the raw realism he brought to the role. There is such profound sensitivity and sadness in his performance as Jett Rink, which strongly implies Dean’s own sadness and psychology yet again being instilled into a character he was starring as. As Dean once said, “Acting is the most logical way for people’s neuroses to manifest themselves.” Therefore, Jett Rink’s sadness and social isolation, despite his success, has a strong correlation with Dean’s own life. The fact that Dean chose to go back to car racing after filming for Giant was completed is extremely revealing. While Dean achieved fame and glory with his film career, it still hindered him as a person.

James Dean Giant 02
James Dean as Jett Rink in Giant (1956).

Therefore, it is somewhat telling and heartbreaking to witness James Dean’s final scene in Giant. Jett Rink, who was initially minimized and ultimately became rich and flaunted it, concludes his character arc alone, isolated, and defeated. No one person contributed to his downfall except for himself, consumed by his loneliness. When filming the scene that is immersed in compassion and self-pity, James Dean was actually belligerently drunk and almost incoherent. The scene is beautifully directed and framed as a longshot, which was at Dean’s own suggestion. In the scene Jett Rink stands alone in a banquet hall speaking to himself, lamenting about the past and what could have been, before he collapses and appears utterly defeated on the floor. This scene extended beyond method acting and somewhat captures who James Dean was down to his core. He was exceedingly lonely and channeled that into his final role. Dean’s own demeanor was channeled into Jett Rink, who is someone who was regarded as an outsider and he chose to be different without issue. Despite the pressure to take an easy path with his life, he doesn’t, and stands for what he believes to be right. Ironically standing up for himself causes his eventual alienation. In this regard, James Dean was far from the image Hollywood agents propagated him as. James Dean was actually a socially isolated individual who was still searching for what could make him happy. Race car driving was a start in that direction, but sadly it took his life.

Critics who claim James Dean could have possibly faded away over time if he hadn’t died are grossly inaccurate in that belief. As evidenced by James Dean’s determination to star in Giant, it showed that Dean was rapidly maturing as an actor, at least in the knowledge that a true actor finds versatility in his work to show his acting range and abilities. There is no real way to gauge how far James Dean would have gone in his career had he not died, but how he was able to instill such realism into his acting suggests that his career was far from over. What audiences are left with are three performances that are not only impactful aesthetically, but also provide a window to understanding who James Dean was. He was a complicated individual, but he was still brilliant in being able to channel that personal turmoil into his acting. With Dean’s method acting training, he was able to take his own psychosis and implement it into his roles, thereby deviating completely from the standard Hollywood style of acting of the era. This is why he was popular and continues to be popular. It wasn’t because he was attractive. It wasn’t because he died untimely. It was because people identified with him then and now. James Dean spent the vast majority of his life trying to discover who he was. He may have never found out, but he aided many in discovering themselves. That is the legacy of James Dean.

James Dean 02James Dean

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