best film:  James Dean may have never made a masterpiece, but he never made an unarchiveable film either – or for that matter, even a film that did not at least flirt with the top ten (10) of its respective year. His best film is Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and it is not because of the iconic red jacket or drag race. Ray was at the height of his powers during this stretch (Johnny Guitar was just the year prior in 1954). Rebel bests East of Eden (from the consummate Elia Kazan) and Giant (directed by a very able George Stevens).


best performance: Rebel Without a Cause but the delta here is even slimmer than the category above. All three (3) films rely on acting as a major strength (for better and worse) – they are character studies for Dean’s various roles (from Cal Trask in East of Eden to Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause to Jett Rink in Giant) – and Dean gives the best performance in all three (3) films. If Giant (the weakest of the three performances), had focused on Dean’s Jett Rink instead of the Jordan Benedict Jr character (played by Rock Hudson) – this may very well be the best performance of the three (3) – and Giant would be measurably better than it is. Still, there is a reason Rebel is the film Dean is remembered for best – his performance is so raw – he is a more sensitive version of Brando – more adolescent and even volatile in some ways though less physical. This is a new form of acting with a lineage coming from Montgomery Clit and Marlon Brando – and it is important.


James Dean as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause just a year after Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront – Dean is part of the movement like Brando – the actor’s studio, method acting – and their styles and similarities are impossible to deny.


stylistic innovations/traits:  Three (3) for three (3) in the archives (and two (2) for two (2) in in terms of possible Oscar nominations because two of the films were in the same year) and then of course James Dean was dead at the age of twenty-four (24). He lived from 1931 to 1955. Montgomery Clift was eleven (11) years older, Brando seven (7) – even Paul Newman (who had his big break taking a role – Somebody Up There Likes Me – headed Dean’s way), is six (6) years older. Dean’s death at such a young age was tragic of course – making him perhaps cinema’s greatest acting “what could have been”. Dean gives the best performance in all three of his films (not something one can say about a John Cazale – another actor with a flawless filmography) and of course that resume is without a blemish. Dean was heavily influenced by Clift, Brando and the method acting movement. Dean broods – playing emotionally complex (and sometimes realistically inconsistent) characters – touching a new form of acting believability in the mid-1950s. The approach is supposed to result in characters that are less machine-like than the roles played by Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and the other titans that dominated the screen prior to the advent of Clift, Brando and Dean. Dean’s filmography is obviously lacking depth – and that is an undeniable weakness. It is endlessly intriguing to wonder if he would have had the long, storied career of say Paul Newman or a 1960s decade like Alain Delon. Impossible to know for sure of course – and tremendously sad that cinephiles never had the chance to find out what the future held for James Dean. Still, Dean’s legacy lives on and he should be remembered as a great actor in the middle of an important acting movement in cinema history – not just an icon of cool and the legend myth status surrounding his death.


East of Eden is Dean’s debut, first archiveable film, first Oscar nomination, and the only film that was released prior to his death in September 1955. Dean plays Cal Trask – and Cal’s trademark yellow sweater is in just about every scene almost like Dean’s red jacket in Rebel Without a Cause.  This is Cain and Abel via John Steinbeck in Salinas (on location shooting – gorgeous) California – a meditation on hypocrisy from the father played by Raymond Massey. Dean is enchanting – method – apparently, he even went so far as to provoke Massey (who did not like Dean he said during and after filming) off-screen to increase the intensity of the performance and the gulf/dynamic between the two. Like Rebel – Dean plays a troubled teen, tormented by parents/family relationship – the debut for Jo Van Fleet (who is very good here – won best supporting actress). Dean and Massey are two complex characters – Massey’s character  is on the draft board and Dean’s character is a war profiteer – so it is believable that he would be upset. Dean is such a gifted physical actor – grabbing his hair (busy with his hands like Brando grabbing Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront both films directed by Elia Kazan – or the way Dean slinks out of the back of the car. Dean has his trademark changes in volume in speaking – soft spoken and mumbling one minute to almost over the top outpouring of emotion the next.


directors worked with:  Elia Kazan (1), Nicholas Ray (1) and George Stevens (1)


when Dean is absent from the screen in George Stevens’ Giant – it is palpable


top five performances:

  1. Rebel Without a Cause
  2. East of Eden
  3. Giant


archiveable films

1955- East of Eden
1955- Rebel Without a Cause
1956- Giant