Friday, September 30, 2011

In Memoriam: The Anniversary of James Dean's Death (1931-1955)

James Dean
Eight years ago, I caught Rebel Without A Cause on TV late one night. I was exhausted that day. I had planned on going to bed early, but I was struck by the image of James Dean, lying on the ground with a wind-up toy monkey, in the opening credit sequence for the film.

I recognized the iconic red jacket. It was around this time that my obsession with film was just starting to really take off so I decided, despite my exhaustion, to watch this much-beloved teen angst classic. I figured it would be another Hollywood classic that I could check off my must-see list. I hadn't counted on actually being able to stay wide-awake into the early morning hours.

The film itself is significant to 1950s film history. While parts of it may not have aged very well it still deserves its place among the Hollywood elite. This, in large part, is thanks to Dean's performance. I found him striking, in an odd way, but I was much more intrigued by his unique performance.

Around this time I'd only recently become enamoured with Marlon Brando (the previous year I'd watched The Godfather for the first time -- it was a great introduction to Brando's talent). Dean reminded me of Brando, despite their differences in acting style. Dean clearly idolized and tried to mimic Brando, yet he managed to make all three of his film performances unique and very Dean-esque. From the inspiration he got from Brando he came up with his own style and helped revolutionize acting in film.

Drawing from real life experiences and tragedies, Dean utilized these in his character creations so that the audience could relate and sympathize with his characters, such as Cal Trask (East of Eden, my favourite Dean film and performance).

Rarely do I watch a film and walk away from it absolutely fascinated and in awe of the talent before me. Young actors today so rarely go out of their way to bring something fresh and original to their performances, which is why they won't have the enduring cult power of Jimmy Dean. Watching Dean that night, in the early morning hours, I was saddened at the loss of life and talent. I didn't know much about him at the time, but I knew he'd died young and tragically. I've been a loyal fan, ever since.

Jimmy Dean embodied the charisma, beauty and talent that most actors can only dream of achieving for themselves. Even though he only left behind three cinema features, they will never be forgotten. He was the epitome of masculine-cool. He was ahead of the game both in his activist-humanitarian nature and the way he portrayed a conflicted young rebel. He helped make it okay for male characters to cry in film. Gone were the days of the alpha-male, like John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart. Dean helped usher in a new generation of young, Method actors who saw performance as an art form worthy of their sweat and tears.

It's been 56 years since his death in a car accident at the age of 24, yet time has not diminished his star. To some people he may be a product, just another young dead celebrity face on a poster or a t-shirt -- but to his real fans he was a first-class movie star.

They don't make celebrities like Jimmy anymore.

Here's a rare clip of Dean's screen test for East of Eden (1955).