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Friday 6 December 2019

We all know the legend, but who has seen Dean's movies?

James Dean in 'East of Eden'
James Dean in 'East of Eden'
James Dean
James Dean in 'Giant'
Paul Newman, who snapped up the role earmarked for Dean in 'The Left-Handed Gun'
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

This week the Irish Film Institute is screening digitally restored versions of all James Dean's major movies. He'd starred in just three before he died in a car crash at the age of 24, and only one of them, East of Eden, had actually been released.

As a result he was not that well known when he died, and might have followed many another Hollywood casualty into obscurity were it not for the unexpected success of Rebel Without a Cause.

Released in late 1955, just months after his death, Nicholas Ray's stylish drama caught the imaginations of American teenagers, who found in Dean the perfect embodiment of all their angst and uncertainty. The fact that he was dead only added to his allure – he was perfect, and would remain forever beautiful, and exquisitely misunderstood.

His splendid quiff and pouting frown quickly became as central to the identities of 1950s teenagers as the songs and dancing of Elvis Presley. Moody, mysterious and ridiculously photogenic, James Dean was tailor-made for the wall poster and T-shirt fads of the 1960s and 70s, and his image became as globally ubiquitous as that of Marilyn Monroe.

Almost 60 years after his death, Dean remains a potent cultural icon, but few people under the age of 35 or 40 have actually seen his films. They don't get shown on television much, and these digitally restored re-releases will provide people with a chance to re-assess his reputation as an actor.

Because while everyone from Paul Newman and Martin Sheen to Dennis Hopper and James Franco have cited him as an influence, some critics have dared to wonder was Dean really all that good?

He was certainly different, and back in the mid-1950s his flamboyant and sometimes eccentric on-screen mannerisms marked him out as a brave young actor who was prepared to take risks. And his recklessness on and off screen probably stemmed from his predictably turbulent childhood.

James Byron Dean was born in a modest apartment house in Marion, Indiana, in the winter of 1931. The young Dean was particularly close to his mother, Mildred, and was devastated when she died of cancer in 1940.

At the age of just nine, James was sent to live with his aunt and uncle on a farm in Indiana. His father, Winton, later remarried and the two remained estranged.

In his early teens Dean became friendly with a Methodist pastor called James DeWeerd, who encouraged his early interests in the theatre, and cars. But there may have been a darker side to this bond, and on the set of Giant Dean supposedly confided to Elizabeth Taylor that he'd been sexually abused by a minister.

Dean was always rumoured to have been bisexual: he certainly experimented, but denied that he was gay.

Though an indifferent student, he excelled at sports and drama, and after graduating in 1949 Dean headed back to California with the intention of studying acting. At UCLA Dean's raw talent was quickly spotted, and he was chosen from 350 students to play Malcolm in Macbeth.

Encouraged by this early success, he dropped out and moved to New York to study at Lee Strasberg's famous Actors Studio. During his time there he became a passionate convert to method acting, a technique that would make him an interesting performer, but difficult to direct.

He had shedloads of charisma, though, and an edgy, nervous quality that made you take notice. In 1954 he was cast in a Broadway production of André Gide's The Immortalist. Dean apparently wasn't happy to be playing a homosexual North African houseboy called Bashir, but Hollywood director Elia Kazan came along to see the show, and was impressed. Kazan was about to undertake an ambitious screen adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden, and was looking for a new Brando to play the pivotal role of Cal Trask, the embittered son of a Californian farmer. He thought of Dean, and asked Steinbeck to meet him.

The great writer did not warm to Dean personally, and found him sulky and complicated, but felt he'd be just right for the part of Cal. It came down to a choice between him and Paul Newman, and Dean got the part.

Kazan would later complain about Dean's lack of training and over-reliance on instinct, but he never doubted his natural talent and often let him have his way.

His co-star, Raymond Massey, who played Cal's emotionally repressed father, hated working with the unpredictable Dean. But Kazan knew this antipathy was perfect for their characters, and did nothing to ease the tension.

Dean's performance in East of Eden is probably his best, and is full of little ad libs and ideas that make it special. When he sits on top of a moving train after finding out his mother's a prostitute, his foetal crouch tells us everything his character's going through.

And in the film's most famous scene, Dean shocked Massey by hugging him instead of running out the door as the script demanded.

Massey was horrified but Kazan thought it was a brilliant touch, and left it in.

Word of Dean's talent spread, and Nicholas Ray then cast him as a troubled teenager in Rebel Without a Cause.

The part of Jim Stark was tailor-made for Dean: an alienated 17-year-old who moves to a new town with his family, Stark falls in love with a local girl but must face the school bullies and prove himself in dangerous games of "chicken".

Dean's wildly expressive style seemed glaringly at odds with the measured professionalism of the film's older actors, but of course this represented the film's intergenerational strife perfectly.

Squinting, pouting and unable or unwilling to explain himself, Jim Stark became the quintessential screen portrayal of a teenager.

The performance would make him a posthumous star, but meanwhile he moved on to Giant, George Stevens's sprawling southern melodrama that's said to have inspired the TV show Dallas.

It's soap-opera style entertainment alright, but Dean is as enjoyable as ever as Bick, a Texas smallholder who strikes oil and gets rich. On October 1, 1955, Dean drove his new Porsche 500 Spyder sports car north towards Salinas, where he was due to compete in a road race.

Somewhere south of Bakersfield, his car collided head on with a speeding Ford Tudor coupe driven by a young student. Dean suffered catastrophic injuries and died by the roadside. He was 24.

All we have left of his work are a few walk-ons and three films.

At this remove his acting in them can sometimes seem forced and artificial, but there are also flashes of brilliance that suggest he was not yet the finished article, and perhaps a great actor waiting to happen.

After his death, his projected roles in Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Left-Handed Gun went instead to another handsome young actor called Paul Newman, who took his chance and never looked back.

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