1955 was quite a year. James Dean became a star after releasing two of his three films and died tragically in the September. I have to admit, until recently, I had never seen any of them, partly because they’re rarely shown and partly because I’d wrongly assumed his status as tragic cultural icon may have overstated any acting talent he possessed. So when the BFI advertised an extended run it seemed the perfect opportunity to see for myself, and even better I could see all of them in a weekend mini-season. Now, going to the cinema in the afternoon has always felt somewhat indulgent, but seeing a double bill on Saturday and the third film on Sunday afternoon felt very luxurious!
Giant was first up, although Dean was actually killed a few days after shooting. It’s a somewhat overlong melodrama about a Texan cattle rancher, played by Rock Hudson, who goes away for the weekend to buy a horse and comes back married to Liz Taylor, as you do. It’s the story of their whole lives and its various run-ins with neighbour Jett Rink, played by Dean, a loathed employee who inherits a portion of the land and discovers oil. Rink begins as a shy and socially awkward boy, who for reasons that remained unclear was despised by the family, but develops an affection for Taylor’s character. As he ages, becoming wealthy and famous, Dean effectively instils an air of confidence and business savvy, while hinting at Rink’s continued feelings of exclusion, and in a very touching scene, an ongoing love for Taylor. At well over three hours the film goes on a bit and I thought Hudson’s largely one-dimensional hero was acted off the screen by Taylor and Dean – a few more scenes between them would have been nice. Despite this Giant is a strong example of Dean’s sensitive approach creating sympathy and depth in characters we’re meant to dislike.
Next up was Rebel Without a Cause, a classic tale of disaffected youth which is a relevant today as it’s ever been. Every generation thinks youth culture is a new problem but there’s actually a surprisingly long history, dating back to the beginning of compulsory schooling in the nineteenth-century, which socially created our notion of adolescence. This idea of young men loitering in the streets and causing a nuisance has had various titles from the Boy Labour Problem to juvenile delinquency, but nowhere has it been better represented than in Rebel. We first see Jim Stark (Dean) drunk in the police station, a new boy in town, we already know he’s trouble. But is he… Jim’s parents arrive and you get the first glimpse of a broken down relationship with an overbearing mother and emasculated father. On his first day at school, Jim catches the attention of the local gang who decide to teach him a lesson. Cue an intense flick-knife fight behind the planetarium in which Dean was genuinely cut, and a drag race with fatal consequences.
It’s the classic troubled teenager role, alienated from his parents and unable to make the world ‘fit’, he tries to behave, but trouble finds him and, in an interesting scene with his father, we learn about the codes of honour that mean he can’t just walk away. It’s a fascinating performance from Dean, impressively reflecting his struggle to manage a teenager’s conflicting emotions. At one extreme there’s a stubborn self-determined exile from the established culture which sets him at odds with the School gang, whilst at the other he’s a lonely boy seeking the love of his parents and unable to cope with the very adult consequences of his actions. Although the teenage gang is much copied, (Saturday Night Fever, A Clockwork Orange and Quadrophenia to name a few) I can’t think of a better or more nuanced performance than Dean’s in this role.
The final film of the weekend, and actually Dean’s first, was East of Eden. Based on the John Steinbeck novel, this is a retelling of the Cain and Abel story, set before and during the First World War. Dean plays Cal the son of a religious farmer who lives in the shadow of his perfect brother. The boys have grown up believing their mum has died but as the film opens, Cal has discovered her whereabouts running a house of ill repute in the neighbouring town which he agrees to keep secret from his sibling.
Like Jim Stark, Cal wants the approval of his father who views him (seemingly unreasonably) as being the ‘bad’ son inheriting his mother’s vices. As events play out and America joins the war in Europe, you again see Dean in this balanced role of a boy with good intentions frustrated by his inability to please his father and plagued by this notion of his pre-determined ‘badness’. Although he initiates activities that have significant ramifications for his family, and particularly his perfect brother, these are never maliciously, with one exception (and even then you feel there’s some justifiable provocation). Dean is by far the best thing about the film with his multi-dimensional portrayal of Cal.
Having seen all three films (albeit in reverse order) I now understand the fuss! Dean’s sensitive and multi-layered approach emphasised his theatre experience and made his performances compelling to watch. Dean had a rare talent more than holding his own against some of the industry’s established stars, and helped to bring a more complex style of acting to the screen.
The James Dean Season was at the BFI Southbank and all films are available on DVD.