Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on December 19, 2013
The original rebel, the first rock star, the cultural icon of teenage disillusionment, an American legend and the Sphinx of Youth. These are just a few of the labels that have been used to describe James Dean but I like to remember him as one of our greatest actors.
I lost count of how many times I’ve seen EAST OF EDEN (1955), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and GIANT (1956) long ago but I never get tired of watching Dean and each time it is a revelation. There’s always something new and invaluable to discover in his performances. His critics like to complain about his line delivery and often refer to his “mumbled dialogue” but like any great actor, Dean didn’t need words to express what his characters were thinking and feeling. He understood the power of silence and with a sudden twitch of his boyish body or a gentle tilt of his cowboy hat he could reveal his character’s fears, fervors and focus without uttering a single word. You can see entire worlds illuminated in his eyes when they’re lit up by studio lights and the shadows that dance across his face speak their own distinct language. James Dean may have followed in the footsteps of guys like Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando but he was a wholly unique talent who managed to carve out his own individual path in Hollywood during a few short years with a handful of notable films. Those films have recently been collected into a beautifully packaged Blu-ray DVD set released by Warner Home Video.
James Dean: Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray set contains the three films that made James Dean a posthumous star after his unfortunate death at the young age of 24 in a car accident. Watching EAST OF EDEN, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and GIANT back-to-back is an eerie eye-opening experience that leaves you with the undeniable feeling that we all lost something utterly irreplaceable when Dean was killed in 1955. At age 24 Dean was four years younger than Montgomery Clift when Clift made his stunning film debut in RED RIVER (1948) opposite John Wayne and three years younger than Marlon Brando when Brando electrified audiences with his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951). What James Dean might have accomplished if he had lived a little longer is anyone’s guess but even with just three starring roles under his belt he was able to cement his place in film history.
James Dean plays Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s EAST OF EDEN, a young man in search of his missing mother (Jo Van Fleet) and desperately trying to win the unconditional love of his bible thumping father (Raymond Massey). This deeply touching and innovative adaptation of Steinbeck’s original novel features Dean’s remarkable screen debut and it’s the only film that premiered during his lifetime.
Kazan thought Dean was the right actor for the role of Cal because he had come from a broken home and the director was right. Shattered by the early death of his mother and the emotional unavailability of his father, James Dean was able to effortlessly convey the anger and frustration that many young people feel when they’re denied parental love, understanding and acceptance. EAST OF EDEN is a perfect film that contains a perfect performance by an actor who truly knew what loss was at an early age and Dean’s pain is palpable on screen.
Dean’s next starring role was in Nicholas Ray’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, which allowed him to explore similar themes as a troubled young man trying to fit into a new school and win the attentions of a pretty classmate (Natalie Wood). Ray’s complex look of post war America is the film that defined Dean and made him the archetypal poster boy for teenage angst and typical youthful rebellion. But Dean’s all-consuming portrayal of 17-year-old Jim Stark is anything but typical. He rages against parents (Jim Backus and Ann Doran) that are present in body but deeply lost in their own anxieties, fears and frustrations. He’s angry at a society that seems to have abandoned its children to impersonal and unsympathetic institutions. And he’s frustrated by his peers who seem more than willing to give up their humanity and resort to barbaric and flat out ridiculous shows of strength (knife fights, deadly car races, etc.) in order to prove their manhood to a world trying desperately to contain it.
I wish Jim Stark was a universal anti-hero that appealed to every teenager and represented ordinary youth and juvenile rebellion but he’s not. Contrary to popular belief, he’s an outlier, an anomaly and an atypical dissident. He’s a rebel with a very real cause and that’s what makes Dean’s performance so damn fascinating. Dean refused to let the film’s script define Jim Stark. He took over the role completely and gave the teenager endless depth and a rich inner life that reaches far beyond the confines of a movie screen. He’s a celluloid revolution. Pure movie dynamite.
In George Steven’s sweeping western epic GIANT, Dean plays the rough-and-tumble Jett Rink. A restless cowboy who strikes oil but his riches can’t win him the love and respect he so desperately craves. The film details “family strife, racial bigotry and conflict between cattle barons and newly rich oil tycoons” and has been called “Texas’ own GONE WITH THE WIND” but I think it’s a vastly more interesting and entertaining film than its much-ballyhooed 1939 predecessor and that has a lot to do with James Dean’s performance. In a big-budget grandiose drama it’s easy for an actor to get lost or become part of the scenery but Dean never lets us forget about Jett Rink. Every time he swaggers onto the screen in a pair of dirty blue jeans he demands your attention.
In some ways the character of Jett Rink allowed Dean to deliver the most layered performance of his career but there are echoes of the conflicts he wrestled with in EAST OF EDEN and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. In GIANT Dean’s character shows a careless disregard for authority that speaks volumes about his absent parental figures. And in a multi-generational melodrama that reinforces the importance of family with the subtly of a jackhammer, Jett Rink seems particularly alien and animalistic. It’s as if he’s arrived from another planet or escaped from a zoo. Dean literally prowls around the set of GIANT like an unruly desert coyote kicking up dust and growling at anyone who gets in his way. And when we watch him age into an old man on screen it’s impossible to avoid imagining the direction Dean’s life might have taken if he had lived to see the films’s premiere. Would he have played more cowboys? More rebels? Would he have won awards? Would he have worked with Kazan or Ray again? Would Dean have aged gracefully or would he have turned into a miserable and misunderstood drunken old man like Jett Rink?
Unfortunately we’ll never know but the James Dean: Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray set allows us to contemplate all the possibilities and appreciate what Dean was able to accomplish during his incredibly short time on earth.
All the films in this limited edition box set look and sound terrific and they’re presented in one of the most beautifully designed DVD packages that I’ve ever seen. Besides the three films (EAST OF EDEN, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and GIANT) that feature commentary tracks by Richard Schickel, Douglas L. Rathgeb, George Stevens, Jr., Ivan Moffat, and Stephen Farber, the collection also includes trailers, screen tests and behind-the-scenes featurettes as well as multiple documentaries about the making of each film and Dean’s brief but brilliant career. Highlights include James Dean: Sense Memories, James Dean: Forever Young, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, James Dean Remembered, Forever James Dean, East of Eden: Art in Search of Life and Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents.
If that isn’t enough to spark you’re interest, this collection also includes a 40-page book of photographs illustrating Dean’s career with detailed information about the films he appeared in, mini reproductions of the original movie posters for all three films, production memos and behind the scenes photos that are suitable for framing.
It’s the perfect introduction to Dean’s brief but spectacular career and a real treasure for classic film fans. This edition is limited to 50,000 copies but you can also purchase the films individually. For more information about the James Dean: Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray set please visit the TCM Shop.
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