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My First (Three) Dean(s)

JA from MNPP here with my follow-up to last week's query regarding the fact that I'd never seen a James Dean film and how you all should tell me which one to watch first, by poll. And tell me you did - with 44% of the vote Rebel Without a Cause, his second film with his most iconic performance, came out on top, besting East of Eden (at 37%) and Giant (at 18%). I wasn't exactly surprised by these results.

Most likely when you think Dean, you think this:

That red jacket / white tee / jeans ensemble is Marilyn's white dress flying up on the subway grate; it's Elvis' bedazzled jumpsuit and Audrey Hepburn's little black dress eating a danish in front of Tiffanys. If you're gonna start somewhere with James Dean this seems like the likeliest place to start. Which... well knowing I'd thrown myself at having to write about something so iconic it's sold more stamps than my college education cost, probably squared, was a little intimidating. What is there left to say?

Thankfully the film, while dated, does remain a fascinating, loose, alive thing. Fifty-six years of rebellious teenagers later the movie that crafted the mold somehow manages to remain just enchantingly weird. There is an otherworldly sort of spell it casts over you - there's something very apt about the planetarium setting that the film uses repeatedly. It gives you this epic space - literally all of outer space - with the beginning and the ending of the world exploding around you. But it's a manufactured apocalypse at the same time - you're not under the night sky at all. You're enclosed in a tomb of sound and fury - an echo chamber of gee whizz bang. That sounds a lot like what most of my teenage dramas all turned out to be.

Not that these kids don't have real problems. But the melodramas they play out, coupled with the actors very serious performances, takes the film into a very odd space. It's as heightened as a Douglas Sirk film, only you swap out the acting style of Rock Hudson for James Dean, which... well that's a swap. Having only seen clips of Dean's films before but never a full from-start-to-finish performance from him until now, I've got to say it really and truly was a revelation. I'm sure he was astonishing to watch on stage as well but the man was made to be placed in front of a movie camera. His face is so alive! From every angle - shoot him from the back and you can feel what he is feeling, as if he's shooting pulses of emotion from his scalp.

It seems vulgar to just straight-up gush, but as some of you said would happen in the comments I was so enamored with Dean that as soon as Rebel was finished I put in East of Eden and as soon as East of Eden was finished I put in Giant. And I've now seen them all! (That's why it took me a couple extra days to get this to you - it took me two nights to finish Giant. That is a very long movie.) And now that I've seen them all Dean's legend makes complete sense to me.

I made a joke before having seen the films about the similarity of his characters names - Jim Stark, Cal Trask, and Jet Rink - what seems amazing now, having seen the films is how completely separate these three fellows are to me. It struck me about half-an-hour into East of Eden (what a marvelous film East of Eden is, and how ashamed I feel for having only just seen it) that the Dean I was watching didn't at all seem to be the icon of teenager rebellion that I'd just been confronted with in Rebel and I'd been expecting out of all of Dean's performances. And then you get to Giant and you're watching something completely different still, and yet no less hypnotic, pour out of him.


Oh sure there are the loose similarities that connect the three - young men who seem incapable of fitting in with their surroundings, battling against the forces they see closing in on them, the slights real and imagined, all while maintaining a glorious head of hair - but the details that Dean carves out with body language and with his voice, with Jet's easygoing horse-rider's strut or Jim's tendency to jump around like an extra in West Side Story or the seemingly unwitting cruelty that coils Cal up, it was a surreal and exhilarating experience, watching all in one fell swoop.

So whaddya know? Dean was no fluke, no false advertisement. And when his scenes in Giant came to an end I felt the shadow of sadness that audiences since 1956 must sense, knowing that's all there will ever be. Still, even though the thought of all that could've been is maddening, it feels as if there's so much I'll be able to wring from just these three in repeat viewings. It'll be a pleasure.

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Reader Comments (7)

Wow. I am so pleased you were so motivated as to see all three for this post. That's what we call going "above and beyond"

wonderful post and many astute observations. REBEL is really one of those films that feels both completely out of its time and also weirdly out-of-time simultaneously. My favorite line

shoot him from the back and you can feel what he is feeling, as if he's shooting pulses of emotion from his scalp.

so true.

February 16, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thanks Nat! I was trying to keep this as focused in on Dean (and Rebel) as much as possible since that was the project I set out to do and I'd overloaded myself with so much input in such a short span of time that I really could've spun off into a thousand rambling directions, but what's funny is, even though I didn't get around to mentioning her, this is another NATALIE WOOD movie that I'm writing about seeing for the first time for your site. The other one being West Side Story back in the day. And I know how much you love her, while I'm... not so infatuated. But I thought she was terrific in Rebel, even if I didn't mention it (so I probably should have). A really conflicted performance that I found really interesting from her.

February 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJA

Thrilled that you loved these. I watched them in exactly the same order too, and have been completely enthralled by Dean ever since. In the first two especially (though all three are great), he is just ridiculously good, building fascinating characters that make you wonder what his career would have been.

Also, fun little side note: Mineo told the press long after Dean's death that when they were filming Rebel, Dean was the one who pushed him to act as though he was in love with him. The obvious vibe between the two of them is something I still find hilarious and kind of shocking for the time. It also makes Dean's enigma of a character all the more interesting.

February 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Interesting note about Sal Mineo. James Dean was really flirtatious with both men and women. There's a video floating around the web of him flirting madly with Paul Newman; Newman acted all giddy and flattered.

February 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

Dean is aces in East of Eden, but the movie was somewhat disappointing for me as a whole, probably because the book is one of my absolute favorites. Trying to condense it into one film seems foolish, but how many other page to screen adaptations can that be said for? Although, thinking back on it, I appreciate that they didn't try to fit it all in messily as some adaptations do. Well, as far too many films in general do. Hurumph.

Happy Wednesday!

February 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMason

I teared up a bit reading this; "And when his scenes...came to an end I felt the shadow of sadness that audiences since 1956 must sense, knowing that's all there will ever be." No lie. Good job and I'm truly very glad that you watched (and enjoyed) all three.

February 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJonathon

So glad you liked them all. He's perfection, really, as are "Rebel Without a Cause" and "East of Eden".

February 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn
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