Friday 20 April 2018

Eternal rebel: the myth of James Dean

Larger than life: James Dean on the set of Giant where he played Jett Rink, an oilman who strikes it rich. He didn't live to see the film's release.
Larger than life: James Dean on the set of Giant where he played Jett Rink, an oilman who strikes it rich. He didn't live to see the film's release.

Next Wednesday will mark the 60th anniversary of James Dean's death. The enigmatic and boyishly handsome actor was just 24 when his Porsche Spyder collided with an oncoming car at speed, killing him almost instantly. Who knows what might have happened if he'd lived, but his early death and a smattering of fascinating screen performances were enough to turn him into an American legend.

In the 1970s, an image of Dean walking with hunched shoulders through a rain-soaked Times Square was reproduced as a poster, sold by the bucket-load and became an enduring image of youthful alienation. That photo was taken by a young snapper called Dennis Stock, and a new film by Anton Corbijn tells the story of his strange and symbiotic relationship with Dean.

In Life, which opened here yesterday, Robert Pattinson plays Stock, a driven but confused young man who's frustrated that photographic greatness has thus far eluded him. He's trying to break into Life magazine, which was then the holy grail for American photographers, and becomes convinced that an unknown young actor called James Dean could be his way in.

Dean (Dane DeHaan) has just finishing shooting an adaptation of John Steinbeck's East of Eden, but it hasn't come out yet and meanwhile Dean is under the thumb of the dictatorial studio boss Harry Warner. He could be just another wannabe Brando, but Dennis Stock sees something special in him, a kind of integrity that shines through the lens. He chases Dean for months hoping to get a shoot with him, and his persistence finally pays off.

Anton Corbijn's beautifully photographed film provides an interesting insight into the mind of a young and restless actor whose Hollywood career would be over before it had even begun. But though he was dead within a year of Stock's Times Square photo, Dean completed two further films, Giant and Rebel Without a Cause, that would guarantee his immortality.

One always wonders would he have become such an enduring star if he'd lived, and when I was younger I used to dismiss him as a bad actor because I found all the myth-making and glorification of early death that surround his memory odious.

He was certainly a mannered actor, and the thumb-prints of Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio are all over his work in Rebel Without a Cause. But there's also an incredible power, a kind of coiled energy, and a thrilling screen presence more seasoned actors found it hard to live with. And in Giant, as he began to shake loose the humourless shackles of method acting, glimpses of a dangerous and extraordinary talent began to emerge. So I think he would have been big, very big, that's if he hadn't decided to turn his back on it all and return to the theatre.

Because James Dean was nobody's fool, and seemed very aware of the pitfalls of stardom from the very start. This ambivalence about fame found its way into the smattering of TV and film performances he left behind, lending them a paradoxical shyness. I think he had what it takes to become a really great screen actor, and no wonder everyone has remained fascinated by him

He was born, on February 8, 1931, in Marlon, Indiana. His father, Winton, worked on a farm, and Dean would always retain a strong affinity with animals and the outdoor life. But when James was six the family moved to California so Winton could pursue a career as a dental technician.

James was particularly close to his mother, Mildred, and later said she was the only one who ever really understood him. When he was just nine years old, however, she died of uterine cancer. The boy was devastated, and his father then decided he couldn't care for him, and sent James back to Indiana to live with his sister, Ortense, on her farm.

Though raised in a Quaker household, in his early teens James was befriended by a local Methodist minister called James DeWeerd, who encouraged his interest in the theatre, and cars. But it's been suggested that Rev DeWeerd abused him: before she died, Elizabeth Taylor told a Daily Beast reporter that Dean had confided in her about being "molested by his minister" when he was 11-years-old.

According to Taylor, that had "haunted him for the rest of his life". Something certainly seemed to, because Dean never really seemed like a man comfortable in his own skin.

He did well in high school, excelled at sports, was good-looking, popular. After graduating in 1949, he moved back to California to live with his father and stepmother, and enrolled at UCLA to study law. After just one semester, however, he switched his major to drama, to the disgust of his father who stopped talking to him. But James was undeterred, and after appearing in a college production of Macbeth, realised he'd found his calling.

He dropped out of college to pursue acting, and in early 1951 made his screen début in a Pepsi TV commercial. Soon he was getting walk-on parts in Hollywood movies like the Lewis/Martin comedy Sailor Beware, but in October of 1951 he decided to move to New York and study method acting.

He was delighted when he got into the Actors Studio, and was given the chance to study under method master Lee Strasberg. "It is the best thing that can happen to an actor," he said. But I'm not entirely sure that Strasberg was the best thing for Dean, because the experience left him with ideas and mannerisms it would have taken him years to shake, had he lived.

But his Actors Studio credentials did open doors, and he began picking up interesting theatre and television parts, playing a delinquent in the TV drama series Omnibus, and a sexually ambivalent North African houseboy in the play, The Immortalist.

In late 1953, Elia Kazan began looking for "a Brando" to play the emotionally wounded son of a California farmer in his adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden. When screenwriter Paul Osborn suggested Dean, Kazan met him and was impressed, but wanted Steinbeck to approve his choice. The great writer was apparently not much taken with the complex, neurotic young actor, but knew immediately he was perfect for the part.

And so it proved. Dean's nervy portrayal of Cal Trask was the stand-out performance in Kazan's memorable and intelligent adaptation, and he was honoured with an Oscar nomination, though sadly, it was posthumous. In fact East of Eden was the only one of his films that was released when he was alive, and the only one he got to watch in its entirety.

He was delighted when Nicholas Ray cast him as misfit teenager Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, knowing the role would give him a chance to experiment and improvise. And though Rebel was originally supposed to be a low-budget B picture filmed in black and white, when Jack Warner realised Dean was a rising star, he ordered Ray to start filming in colour.

Dean went straight from Rebel to the set of Giant, George Stevens' sprawling epic following the fortunes of a Texan oil dynasty. It contains my favourite James Dean performance: he seems looser and less self-contained playing Jett Rink, an oilman who strikes it rich but is hopelessly in love with an unattainable woman, played by Elizabeth Taylor. He's funny, and larger than life, offering hints at the kind of actor he might have become.

After Giant he was due to play Italian-American boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), but after Dean's death Paul Newman was given the part. Over the next decade or so, Newman landed roles it would have been very easy to imagine Dean playing - The Hustler's cocky pool player, for example, or the self-centred cowboy in Hud.

So might Dean have had a career like Newman's, solid, substantial, meticulously planned? I think he'd more likely have followed the brilliant but chaotic example of his hero, Marlon Brando, being led by his instinct and embellishing every role with touches and ideas of his own.

In East of Eden, in a scene where his character was rebuffed by his emotionally remote father, played by Raymond Massey, Dean was supposed to end the encounter by running from the room. Instead Dean turned to Massey, whose shock was evident, hugged him pitifully and began crying.

It's a moment of real genius, and Dean's death robbed us of many more.

Rebel without a Cause

It was released a month after his death, and James Dean never got to see it, but Rebel Without a Cause remains the film with which he's most synonymous. In Life it's suggested that he actively campaigned to land the part of juvenile delinquent Jim Stark, and if that's true it's not hard to see why. Because this was the perfect meeting of actor and role, with Dean playing a well-meaning but emotionally unstable young man who feels the whole world has misunderstood him.

In a brilliant opening sequence, Stark is arrested for being drunk on a side-walk, and angrily mocks the adults who question him. He loves but is disappointed in his father, who's hen-pecked by his shrewish mother, and lashes out against the constraints of bourgeois respectability by playing chicken racing cars towards the edge of a sea cliff - the one who jumps out first loses, and as you can imagine this leads to tragedy.

Though not without its faults, Nicholas Ray's film perfectly caught the growing gap between the postwar young and the middle-aged, and James Dean's nervy performance spoke to a rising generation determined not to turn into their parents. Elvis Presley watched it avidly - and learned.

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