James Dean's rebel yell lingers on
According to the National Society of Film Critics' weekly Web poll, the best DVD released in early June wasn't a recent blockbuster or an international art film. It was the two-disc special edition of "Rebel Without a Cause," the 1955 melodrama starring James Dean as a teenager at odds with his family, his society, and himself.
In the No. 3 slot of the poll was "The Complete James Dean Collection," containing "Rebel" along with the 1955 melodrama "East of Eden," about a badly conflicted household, and the 1956 epic "Giant," a saga of Texas oil wealth.
Why are Dean's movies so prominent on DVD just now? One reason is that 2005 marks the 50th anniversary of his death in a car accident at age 24.
A more important reason is that Dean's charisma has never really faded.
Moviegoers who loved his major films in the '50s revisit them often. Fans of the era's pop culture have enshrined him alongside Marilyn Monroe, the young Elvis Presley, and other iconic figures of the era.
And while most of today's young generation may have only a passing acquaintance with his movies, many still feel a special something when they run across a "Rebel" poster, a Dean postage stamp, or a vintage movie scene that encapsulates his unique blend of rebelliousness and vulnerability.
"His image ideally suited 1950s youth culture," says Mikita Brottman, a Maryland Institute College of Art professor whose books include "Car Crash Culture," which argues that Dean's demise in a road accident cemented the association with wildness and nonconformity that he cultivated in his movies.
"Most celebrities who represent rebellion against their parents' generation - Elvis Presley, the Beatles - grow up and mature into celebrities that parents love," Dr. Brottman continues. "Dean didn't grow up, so he's stayed 'rebellious' forever. Every later generation has used him as a blank slate [on which] to project [its own] unruly, disruptive impulses."
Dean's overnight success didn't happen overnight, of course. He discovered acting in high school and college, then set his sights on television. Performance guru Lee Strasberg accepted him in the Actors Studio, the prestigious training ground for psychological "method" acting, which helped Dean land parts on TV, on Broadway, and in Hollywood movies.
His film roles of the early '50s were miniscule, but from the start he worked with strikingly gifted people - directors Douglas Sirk in "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" and Samuel Fuller in "Fixed Bayonets," for example.
His breakthrough role was as the troubled son of a stern businessman in "East of Eden," the John Steinbeck adaptation that earned Dean his first Academy Award nomination. This honor followed his death, as did his nomination for "Giant," which was released after the fatal accident. He's the only actor to receive two posthumous Oscar nods.
For someone who appeared in a mere seven movies, with major roles in only three, Dean's influence on screen acting has been enormous. Think of Al Pacino in "The Godfather," or Jack Nicholson in "Easy Rider," or Martin Sheen in "Badlands," and you'll realize the power of his legacy. It's a long-lived legacy, too, reflected by Brad Pitt in "Fight Club," Johnny Depp in "Edward Scissorhands," and Leonardo DiCaprio in almost anything, including "The Aviator," where his portrayal of billionaire Howard Hughes strongly recalls Dean's depiction of a rags-to-riches oil tycoon in "Giant."
I've respected Dean's passion and originality ever since I saw "Rebel Without a Cause" as a teenager. I've also found things to criticize in his acting, such as his sometimes artificial mannerisms - the way he flaps his hands and arms away from his body, for instance, to show how "sensitive" he is. But such shortcomings were outweighed by his brooding creativity. I agree with critic David Thomson, who writes in "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film" that Dean was not a rebel but a "disenchanted romantic" who saw that "society had fallen away from its proper nobility, into vulgarity, materialism, and self-deception."