Remembering Two-Time Oscar Nominee James Dean: The Rebel with a Cause
By: Ellis Nassour
"Dream as if you’ll live forever," said James Dean, the young actor who took Hollywood by storm in only his first film,. "Live as if you’ll die today … If a man can bridge the gap between life and death – if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man."
By that standard, Dean has maintained the greatness he achieved on screen, evident from the very beginning in the first of his three major films, Elia Kazan’s production of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, where his unique theatricality jumped from the screen. Here was someone very young, only 22, not only with star billing but with acting chops that were different from anything audiences had seen.
By the time of his second leading role in Nicholas Ray’s explosive story of lost youth, Rebel without a Cause, Dean was box office boffo! When shooting began on George Steven’s production of Edna Ferber’s Giant, Dean was as big if not bigger in his moment of fame than co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Amazingly, all three films were literally shot back-to-back, 1954-1955 within 18 months.
He was the Hollywood buzz. Scripts were being thrown at him right and left, so much that he found it all overwhelming and would escape to race his motorcycle or race cars in Palm Springs. His studio, Warner Bros., knew they were on to something good. As Giant filming came to its conclusion, WB signed Dean to an exclusive 10-year contract at $100,000 a picture – making him the first star to ink a million dollar deal. Sadly, he didn’t live to fulfill it or his promise.
In a horrendous head-on collision on September 30, 1955, the deadly accident that was never supposed to happen happened when Dean, who decided in a flash second not to follow the rules but instead go with instincts. Speeding on a straight, flat section of California U.S. 99 [now I-5], on his way to a race with brand new "dream trophy of success," a silver gray Porsche Spyder, his life ended.
James Dean became the first actor to be Oscar-nominated posthumously. He received Best Actor nods for East of Eden and Giant.
The fascination with Dean has never ended. Three weeks ago [on February 8], Dean would have turned 83. What would he, what could he have achieved! But, in death, he’s remained forever young. His star status segued into that of an idol. Books, films, documentaries, and speculation on the What Ifs had his career gone on have gone on and on.
Dean, though an overnight star, was no overnight success. Long before East of Eden he was paying his dues – acting in college [where, before dropping out, he changed his major from pre-law to drama], doing readings and workshops, and toiling at countless odd jobs, until he got his first break, a Pepsi commercial.
He secured behind-the-scenes work at the networks, lurking on the soundstages observing what was shot and how it was shot. He hung with fellow actors, such as Martin Landau, who became a close friend, and Eli Wallach, who introduced him to the Actor’s Studio, where he was soon accepted as a member. There he studied with and hung out with Marlon Brando, Arthur Kennedy, Mildred Dunnock and two stars he’d soon be onscreen with: Julie Harris and Carroll Baker. He became a go-to star in the so-called Golden Age of TV, when shows were telecast live; and from 1951-1953 he had uncredited roles in five features.
On TV, he co-starred in over 20 programs and a made-for-TV movie – more often than not, playing eccentric loners. Considering the body of Dean’s TV work, and the roles he was cast in, it’s interesting that the public didn’t notice him long before East of Eden.
A 1954 TV featured role was opposite Ronald Reagan. The future California governor and U.S. President said, "Jimmy was an intelligent young actor who seemed to live only for his work. He was completely dedicated, and although a shy person, he could hold a good conversation on many wide-ranging subjects." The same year, Dean was on TV opposite future Rebel co-star Natalie Wood.
However, as Dean told Landau and Wallach, theater was his first love. He made his New York Off Broadway debut in 1953, directed by Frank Corsaro in the short-lived The Scarecrow [seven performances] at the Theater de Lys [now the Lucille Lortel] with a large cast that included his Actor’s Studio pal Wallach, Anne Jackson [Mrs. Wallach], and Tony winner Patricia Neal, who said of the virtually unknown Dean, "he was born to become an actor."
Colleagues spoke of Dean’s "extreme concentration and exceptional imagination"; and how his Actor’s Studio experience established his uniqueness enabling him to make even minor roles his own.
Dean made his Broadway debut in 1952’s short-lived See the Jaguar [five performances] by N. Richard Nash [The Rainmaker]. Then, it was back to TV. In 1954, director Daniel Mann and producer Billy Rose cast him as a "pandering North African houseboy" in Augustus and Ruth Goetz’s adaptation of the novel The Immortalist, on the heels of their hit The Heiress. He appeared opposite Louis Jourdan and Geraldine Page.
While Dean and Page hit it off immediately, becoming intimate friends, Jourdan, who didn’t know what to make of Dean’s performance, complained to Mann. [He may have been peeved that Dean got better reviews.] Mann spoke to Dean, but little good it did. The Frenchman and the rebel clashed, because, it’s been reported, Dean "ignored his blocking and moved around a lot." They only spoke onstage. Frustrated, Dean gave notice after two weeks.
His timing was fortuitous. The play folded after 96 performances; and Kazan was about to set off to California to direct East of Eden. Kazan, a co-founder of the Actor’s Studio, began a search for "another Brando" to play moody, insecure, and frustrated Cal Trask, whom in his notes described as "delightfully anarchistic, odd, original, imaginative, eccentric, full of longing, and with sudden mood alterations. He is the unexpected personified. He goes directly to the heart of the matter."
"It was perfect casting," says Wallach. In a letter to a friend, Dean wrote something that telegraphed the track of his career: "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."
Kazan told Wallach that Dean "did something that attracted me. He wasn’t polite. He didn’t try to butter me up. He had a real sense of himself." When discussing the role with Dean, Kazan said the actor found it difficult to talk. "But, then, he invited me to go for a ride on his bike. We went all over Manhattan. It was his way of thanking me."
To his much-admired, but she always claimed platonic girlfriend, Eartha Kitt, Dean said, "In this great need we all have to express ourselves, acting is the most logical way for people’s neuroses to manifest themselves."
He once wrote a friend that time spent on his family’s Indiana farm proved quite helpful in his career. "Studying cows, pigs, and chickens can help an actor develop his character. I also learned a lot of things from animals. One was they couldn’t hiss or boo me."
In an interview about working with Dean in East of Eden, Julie Harris stated, "Jimmy was very exciting – not only enormously charismatic, but also a very intelligent, gifted actor. He had this ambition to play Hamlet. I hoped he would keep working in theater."
Stage and screen’s Lois Smith states, "I’m one of the few from the cast still walking and talking." She made her feature debut at 24 as a shy, girl working in the bordello. "I used to imagine Jimmy sitting on the porch at the family farm. While he was sweet and charming, there was this taunt and guarded young man. Both seemed always present. In East of Eden, Jimmy brought a new sensibility to acting. It turned out to be what people wanted at that moment. For young people, he was someone really recognizable."
According to Landau, "Jimmy represented that moment in time. Where grown ups had set styles, Jimmy stepped in. In his TV work and films, Jimmy frequently played a young man unhappy with his lot. That vulnerability struck a chord."
Dean’s star power overshadowed co-stars Harris, veteran actor Raymond Massey, and Richard Davalos; and came close to overshadowing Jo Van Fleet, playing his mother whom he’d been told was dead, a madam – which won her an Oscar [she’d go on to win a Featured Tony for the original, short-lived production of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, starring Lillian Gish and featuring Eva Marie Saint].
However, Dean didn’t impress Massey, who was playing his ultra-religious father, Adam. He became quite disoriented with Dean’s method acting and "Actor’s Studio mentality"; and flustered when Dean threw him off, changing lines and doing them as he felt they should be done. Massey almost walked off the film when Dean pulled one of his "sudden mood alterations." In the emotional scene where Adam rebuffs money from Dean, he was supposed to leave the money on a table and exit in a run. Instead, he lunged at Massey, embracing him in a bear hug, and began sobbing. The camera caught the shock on Massey’s face. Kazan kept the take.
Massey complained to Kazan, who by this point considered Dean "quite a handful" because he’d disappear from Mendocino, California locations to ride his motorcycle and bond with young townspeople. However, when he finally had a sit-down with Dean, h told him, "Raymond’s getting really irritated. Keep it up! That’s what I want."
In Rebel without a Cause, Dean found in Nicholas Ray an eccentric director on his wave length, and cast members he could bond with. Sal Mineo, also in the midst of a rise to stardom, and Dean became inseparable. Some of their scenes approach homoeroticism on the part of Mineo’s character Plato. Mineo was later to admit he fell madly in love with Dean and hinted at a relationship.
If Dean played an alienated youth in Eden, he took it way beyond that as the rebellious, mumbling outsider new-boy-in-town Jim Stark in Rebel. His bad boy persona resonated with youth not only here but worldwide. His posture and the way he dressed became widely imitated.
Being cast in the hugely expensive epic Giant as Jett Rink, the lowly, obnoxious ranch hand who segues into an oil tycoon, was quite the icing on the cake for Dean. However, Stevens found Dean to be more than a handful. On location in Texas, there was no motor cycle for distraction. Knowing his penchant for recklessness, Warners barred him from riding and racing during production. But often when it came time for his scenes, Dean couldn’t be found. He told Stevens he wanted "to be a Texan 24-hours a day." Often he was off with ranchers, learning rope tricks [one of which he used to great effect in the film] and studying the local accent and slang.
There were times when, to get the performance he wanted, Stevens baited Dean by telling him how to do a scene. Dean’s anger resulted giving Stevens exactly, if not more, than he wanted. The director noticed that after he’d yell "Cut," Dean would stay in the moment, sometimes moody or sulking, and would do unexpected business. He told cinematographer William Mellor, "Stay on him. Stay on him! Keep the camera rolling."
Addressing that matter, Dean told a friend, "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."
Dean didn’t mix with the company, with the exception of Elizabeth Taylor. They were together so much, the cast assumed they were having an affair. He also became very close to character actress Jane Withers, who was very religious and attempted to get Dean to join her at church services. That never happened, but he came to her rented house where she cooked for him and washed his clothes.
Ferber, writing in her autobiography A King of Magic, noted that Dean "was spectacularly talented, handsome in a fragile sort of way and absolutely outrageous. He was an original. Impish, compelling, magnetic, utterly winning one moment, obnoxious the next. Definitely gifted."
When he finished his last scenes back at the studio, in an ironic twist, the day before he was to set off for the race, still in his grimy giant costume and playing with a rope, he shot a public service announcement on highway safety. "Take it easy driving," he stated. "The life you save might be mine … I took a lot of unnecessary chances on the highway, and then I started racing. Now, when I drive on the highway I’m extra cautious. I don’t have the urge to speed. People say racing is dangerous, but I’d take my chances any day on the track than on a highway."
For the trip that weekend, where he was racing his Porsche, he and a mechanic mounted the sports car on a flat-bed truck, driven by a stuntman friend. Not long after leaving Los Angeles, the mechanic allegedly urged Dean "to see what the Porsche can do." It was unloaded. They sped away. It’s been reported the driver going south and about to make a turn across the two-lane highway couldn’t see the Porsche in the blazing sun because of its metallic color.
Commemorating Dean’s career is a limited, numbered Blu-ray six-disc set, James Dean: Ultimate Collector’s Edition [Warner Home Video; SRP $100] with collectible bonus material that includes a 48-page book, photos, posters, clips from Dean’s TV work, screen tests, three documentaries with remembrances and anecdotes from Landau, Wallach, girlfriend Eartha Kitt, and Giant co-stars Rock Hudson , Carroll Baker, and Jane Withers.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the documentaries is the moment Stevens has all the Giant cast in a WB screening screen watching the day’s rushes and the phone rings. The call is for Stevens. On being told the news of the collision, phone still in hand, he stepped forward and waved to the projectionist to stop the film. In a grave voice he announced to the hushed room, "Jimmy’s been killed."
Stunned silence, then Elizabeth Taylor broke down. Hudson and Withers attempted to console her. When Hudson turned to find Stevens, a burly giant of a man, he saw him exiting the projection room. Hudson followed him and they wandered aimlessly around the maze of soundstages trying to make sense of fate.