James Dean: over-appreciated icon?

Posted by · 5:40 am · July 14th, 2008

James Dean in GiantLet me state that I am aware of how much trouble I am going get myself into by writing this.

With all the praise for Heath Ledger and his apparently electrifying performance in “The Dark Knight,” comparisons have been drawn to 50s method actor James Dean.  Great at his trade, a troubled social life, an early death, what might have been, etc.

Ledger was a great actor, he should have won the Academy Award for his stunning performance in “Brokeback Mountain” and no doubt will be nominated for his turn as the Joker.  But Ledger’s body of work, though small, was superb and demonstrated a range that vastly surpasses that of James Dean, who was frankly similar in every role.

The first time I saw James Dean on screen I too was stunned by performer, but for reasons you might not expect. Having heard so much about him, having read everything I could get my hands on, the film “East of Eden” was playing on the late show one night in the days before home video. I set my alarm and went to the cinema, and over two hours later I went back to bed wondering what all the fuss about.

Later of course I watched “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” and still to this day I cannot understand those who believe Dean was one of the greatest American actors, so much so that he was elevated to the status of an icon.

Did he have a presence? Indeed, but so does Keanu Reeves and I hear no one hailing him as the greatest actor of his generation. Part of Dean’s presence came from understanding instinctively how to draw attention to himself in the frame. Movement, plain and simple is the trick.

Watch “Giant” and watch carefully the scenes he has with Rock Hudson (who was furious at what he did) while they are letting him know he has inherited some land. He sits, twirling a small lasso, adjusting himself in the chair, moving, moving, moving, knowing that the audience will be drawn to him by the motion. He was famous for this as far back as the Actor’s Studio, sucking the energy out of the scene and the other actors but giving nothing back.

Those who worked with him — Raymond Massey, Jim Backus, Rock Hudson — all respected his reputation, but thought little of his ways because they knew what he was doing. They understood he was working for himself, not part of the ensemble, doing little more than artistic masturbation…whatever worked for him.

Dean, I believe, fell into the trap of believing his own press, believing everything being written about him and then having the burden of acting that out in real life. Indeed he was troubled, there is little doubt of that, and he tried to bring that turmoil and rage to the screen, sometimes succeeding, more often, not. His obsession with the great Marlon Brando often led him to imitate the actor on screen, leaving Brando to give the kid some advice: “get some therapy.”

Would he have grown as an actor? Perhaps. Paul Newman did, becoming better and better before our eyes, and it is possible Dean might have the done same. My problem is that Newman arrived without the baggage and press of Dean, and was permitted to grow. Dean already believed he was a “great actor” because everyone was telling him so.  Butould he have been unselfish?  In none of the countless books I have read can I find much to tell me he was nothing more than a self-absorbed young man.

George Stevens understood how to use Dean best. Keep him in a supporting role, always in the background. Dean was superb as the young Jett Rink because he was portraying an element of himself, a young man who just wanted to be loved and accepted. However, he falters badly as the older Rink, giving a performance any high school drama student could have given…seriously.

More than 50 years after his death on a lonely road, September 30, 1955, he remains an icon — like Che Guevara, a famous image on a T-shirt. And of course, the fascination the actor remains.  But I wonder if that has more to do with what might have been rather than what was.

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18 responses so far

  • 1 7-14-2008 at 9:07 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I believe it is the unique combination of several things.
    First of course, he died very early after making only a handful of films,
    Second, the roles he portrayed were hugely influential in those days because they were new and a recognition of what America’s youth were going through at the time. Also his looks and defiant attitude towards the patriarchs spoke to many people’s imaginations.
    Thirdly, the films itself were inventive too. East of Eden was one of the first films to shoot in the widescreen format and became something special or that too. Next to Dean’s performance of course, which brings me to the next point.
    His talent. The kid was brilliant in just those few films but sadly died before being able to make more films outside of that important period in America’s culture.
    I am of the opinion that the posthumous Oscar nod really cemented his status.
    He was an icon of the period and justfully so, and that is why he endured.

  • 2 7-14-2008 at 10:55 am

    head_wizard said...

    I have not seen any of his films but I like that someone is willing to question the supposedly unquestionable. Death at a young age doesn’t make you a great actor.

  • 3 7-14-2008 at 2:31 pm

    John Foote said...

    Again, to Jonathan, got all that…my point of course being I do not think for one minute he was brilliant in anything other than the early sequences of “Giant”…ordinary, hyperactive, interesting, “acting” but not brilliant. Had he not died, would we be having this conversation? I doubt it because he would have likely become just another ordinary actor.

  • 4 7-14-2008 at 3:36 pm

    Andre said...

    If you think YOU’re getting in trouble for writing this, then I’ll be in for a world of hurt that not only I agree with you on James Dean, but also feel the same way about Heath Ledger. Now don’t get me wrong, Ledger WAS a good actor. But after his death, everyone talks about him like he was Brando, Olivier or, I don’t know… Daniel Day-Lewis (who dedicated his own SAG award to Ledger’s memory). No matter how good he is in “The Dark Knight”, truth of the matter is, it won’t be the performance that’ll get him awards, but the excessive hype and sentiment surrounding his untimely death.

  • 5 7-14-2008 at 4:44 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Yeah I think so too. I respected Ledger and was shocked with his death. I think he will become our generation’s James Dean.

  • 6 7-14-2008 at 4:53 pm

    John Foote said...

    Though in fairness guys his performance in “Brokeback Mountain” was nothing short of astonishing — the depth, the emtional nakedness, the quiet display of anguish…that final scene along rips my heart out. The New York Film Critics got it right giving him their best actor award…too bad the Academy did not. I do however agree that there was a sad outpouring of over praise when he died…he had certainly not reached the heights of Brando at the time of his death…

  • 7 7-14-2008 at 7:56 pm

    Proman said...

    “Ledger was a great actor, he should have won the Academy Award for.”

    One sentence – two parts. One I agree with the I other I call a no.

    OK, I’ll kill the suspense right here by saying I think his nomination was a stretch. Jake Gyllenhaal overshadowed him (imo).

    I think it’s sad that we’re deprived of what could have been. I miss him very much and look forward to seeing him in TDK and the new Terry Gilliam film. However, I dont think we should operpraise him.

  • 8 7-14-2008 at 9:45 pm

    Liz said...

    I’m pretty much in head wizard’s shoes here. I don’t know much about James Dean beyond the popular public image, but I do support the deconstruction of mythical figures. I’m always the first to say that Shakespeare was a hack. Stay strong, John! :)

  • 9 7-15-2008 at 1:00 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Ledger was great in “Brokeback Mountain.” For my money, he was arguably even greater in “Candy” – which doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough in the various studies of his short career.

    As for James Dean, there’s a very sharp distinction between actor and icon – if they were related, Marilyn Monroe would be deemed the greatest actress of all time. I personally haven’t heard or read that many people say he was a truly great actor – though I think he had huge promise.

  • 10 7-16-2008 at 10:12 am

    Jamian Bailey said...

    I agree with your post on so many levels. I do however think James Dean would have eventually become one of the greats. Too me acting is something that you get better, and better at as you get more experience. It’s kind of funny though how Dean has become this legend. Peter Finch who I think was amazing who died months before he would win his Oscar for Network has not received the same status as Dean. In my humble opinion Finch blows Dean out of the water when it comes to acting. It’s just funny how death truly can immortalize a person.

  • 11 7-16-2008 at 12:58 pm

    Adrianna said...

    I agree with Jamian, that Peter Finch was an amazing, terrific actor, way better than Dean. But Finch had more years (and more talent and intelligence), and the “What might have been” is strong for early deaths.

    I think James Dean is GREAT in his still photography, he gives a wonderful image that people relate to to, without ever having seen his movies. I also think he was very of his moment, riding the zeitgeist wave of his era.

    But when I watch his movies, I’m surprised that I actually loathe him. Whining, self-pitying, self-absorbed, mysogynistic, … we’ve seen this character play out in real life and pop culture for decades now, and he’s the deadbeat who’s petrified that everything will “emasculate” him, and has no empathy for anybody else. He’s attached to his violent responses to suggestions of responsibilty. At the time, this may have looked sexy and rebellious — now he looks like a twit.

    And his acting can’t overcome his self-absorption and limited capabilities. He isn’t nearly as good as Montgomery Clift, who he was compared to, but Clift has what Dean lacked.

  • 12 7-18-2008 at 4:09 pm

    John Foote said...

    I am not sure I believe that actors get better with age or experience, Brando did not, but they do indeed evolve. Some have to be sure, Clint Eastwood among them, but look at Pacino, who has gotten progressively worse since the eighties, and Olivier who spent his later years portraying the same whiny old man in film to film. For me they get better with challenges, and by taking risks witht their art and craft.

  • 13 11-10-2008 at 7:06 am

    Dilly Taunt said...

    Dear Mr. Foote,

    If you had 1/8 of the talent as a critic than ANY of the artists that you deem yourself qualified to offer your insights about, you might possibly have achieved 1/20 of their fame …even in their declining years… which eventually would add up to very, very little.

  • 14 11-27-2008 at 1:35 pm

    Travis Outlaw said...

    John Foote: I’m finding this article kind of late. But I have to disagree with you.

    As a big fan of James Dean that has seen all of his 3 movies as well as every documentary about him. I have to say (People who know nothing of James Dean should not be allowed to comment head_wizard). And you can’t say seriously put Heath Ledger (he was great in Batman, and Brokeback Mountain) in the same category as Dean. To the James Dean Haters http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sma87ydmSFM
    I think a lot of people know nothing about James Dean and say a lot of bad stuff about him because they know nothing about him or just don’t understand him. And instead have seen Batman and think Heath was the best ever and now criticize an American icon.

    I am a huge movie buff. Watching many different actors. I believe James Dean was one of the greatest actors ever because he was the most unique. He was different from any other actor. James Dean symbolized the loner, the alienated outsider, the kid who was picked on, the rejected kid who parents didn’t love him, the teenage rebel, the kid who was sweet but misunderstood, the homosexual, the emo. This what made James Dean great. If you ever experienced one of these types of feelings than maybe you would understand Jimmy more. I know a lot of people never do and this is why they say Jimmy wasn’t so great.

    Dying young helped keep his name alive. And made him an American icon. Was he a better actor than Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Monterey Cliff? You can never answer that question because Jimmy only made 3 movies.

    But Jimmy’s 3 movies were so significant. Today Rebel without a Cause is just another movie. But Rebel without a Cause in the 1950’s was so controversial that Warner Bros. many times wanted to stop production. Nick Ray the director had to many times fight to keep scenes like the (knife fight, chickie run, Plato’s homosexuality in the scene) alive. As well as the new style of clothing and sexuality in the movie. Some say Rebel without a Cause created the teenager. As teenagers in the 1950’s never existed. Giant portrayed the loner, the outsider beautifully. And East of Eden portrayed the unloved child.

    What also made James so interesting and unique was his personality off-set. James Dean was a loner, bisexual, alienated always scared of people getting too close, sensitive, a tom sawyer like asshole. In fact, James Dean was exactly the character he played in Cal, Stark, and Jett Rink. James Dean also had a terrible life growing up. His father never loving him. And mother dying at 8yrs old. These things might make people appreciate Jimmy more.

    The 50’s were James Dean, Marilyn Monre, and Elvis. Heath is not even close to James Dean.

    Have you ever seen a scene so beautiful?

  • 15 3-04-2011 at 7:22 am

    Samantha Cullen said...

    Travis Outlaw,

    very beautifully said! I couldn’t agree more with you!

    I am a huge James Dean fan and read everything I can get my hands on about him. I often think that if he had just grown old that I would not have such a fascination with him as he would just be another actor. but that’s not the case, he did die young, and what he left behind were not just movies but that they stood for. He was not just an actor in those movies… all 3 of thos movies were who HE was. research his life and you will see he played those roles flawlessly because he lived them everyday. he had a special and unique talent aswell.

    out of the 3 my favorite movie is East of Eden, he has such a presence in this movie it is unreal.

    Jimmy Dean was and still is an amazing actor, he became an icon not necessarily because of who he is, but because what his movies stood for during his time.

    RIP James Dean♥

    February 8 1931 – September 30 1955

  • 16 5-28-2011 at 11:56 pm

    Joe da baker said...

    James dean was great actor mr foote I don’t understand this anger you have for an man who died tragically as he was just starting to make a life for himself and he is remembered for a reason being a brilliant talent who would have learned more and gotten better with age you can’t deny the power and presence he emitted on screen you answered your own question saying he sucked the energy out of the other actors well that’s because he was infinitley better at acting than others he worked with you deny this your just sound like spiteful and jealous of his talent and recognition because I have the feeling your apart of a very lonely majority that don’t like James dean

  • 17 1-16-2014 at 2:25 pm

    Sean said...

    What does “knowing” him or being in a minority have to do with not liking or critiquing Janes Dean’s acting style? He was not infallible (and don’t tell me that is why you like him so much. This making him…infallible), he had a lot of things about his acting which were annoying and didn’t rub off well to a number of people.

    For the record I do not hate him nor consider him terrible, but he had a lot to be desired in terms of acting. Just playing angry teenagers hardly shows the range he may have had and I do feel with time he would have become much better but as of the work he left behind now, didn’t always match up. He could be very present and engaging yet in the next scene off somewhere with no presence at all.

    He is an icon because of the influence he had that is still seen in style and attitude today and he was one of the first to really act in a way that used improv so I give him credit for really wanting to make the characters his own. But the brown nosing and uproars when anyone has the fall to look more in depth into his acting and critique it is just plain star worship, brown nosing ridiculous. We’re talking about movie actors and pop culture here, not the peace treaty. No need to get bent out of shape and personally and intellectually undermine someone who is giving a very solid, well thought out and supported opinion. While I’m at it, I don’t even think James Dean would have liked all the blind adoration. One thing I admire about classically trained background actors is that they take the time to think about everything on a deep level. Wah James Dean was the best actor you didn’t know him hero worship is hardly the thought HE would have wanted to inspire.