When Donald Crisp passed away in 1974, he left behind one of the most venerable careers in the motion picture industry. He had appeared in some 200 films over six decades, including some of Hollywood's most popular and acclaimed pictures, and had been honored with the Academy Award. Now, however, a mere 27 years later, his name is known only to movie buffs.
With that in mind, it is all the more startling to realize that James Dean made only three films, released over a period of two years. And yet, as we approach the 50th anniversary of his death, he remains a potent and vital part of American popular culture, the designated avatar of adolescent angst. Our ongoing fascination with Dean has most recently found expression in the TNT cable network's biographical film, "James Dean: Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die."
The 1950s saw a trend toward movies catering to the youth market accompanied by an influx of enormously talented young actors. Of all the new young talents, the three who stood out from the crowd were Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean. All three were heavily influenced by the acting technique that came to be known as "method acting," and all three had a powerful stage presence. But no one, not even Brando, made as direct and powerful a connection with audiences as Dean. Martin Sheen has said that Brando changed the way actors acted, but Dean changed the way people lived.
To see why, you have to go back to Dean's films, all of which are available on home video. In "East of Eden" (1955), based on John Steinbeck's novel, Dean plays Cal Trask, a confused, angry adolescent growing up in Salinas, California. His mother left his moralistic father years ago, leaving Cal to hunger in vain for his father's love and approval. Unfortunately for Cal, his father's favor seems to be reserved exclusively for Cal's brother, Aron. Dean portrays Cal as a mass of exposed nerve endings - mercurial, volatile, unpredictable. It was, arguably, the first time a movie had ever been able to convey the exact feeling of being an insecure teenager.
Earlier films dealing with rebellious youth had been more along the lines of "The Wild One" (1954), in which Marlon Brando's character, asked what he is rebelling against, snarls back, "Whaddaya got?" Teenagers could see that scene and think "Yeah, I've felt like that," but when they saw Dean as the tormented and misunderstood Cal Trask, they were more likely to think, "My God, that's me!"
"East of Eden" was followed immediately by "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955), in which Dean plays Jim Stark, another troubled teen struggling to carve out his own identity in a world that cannot hope to understand him. Again he is in conflict with his father, but this time it is not his father's love that is in question, but rather his father's ability to be a strong role model.
Dean's final film was "Giant" (1956), based on Edna Ferber's novel and every bit as big and sprawling as the Texas it portrays. Dean was not the star of the film, however. The lead roles were played by Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor as Texas oil barons. Dean's portrayal of Jett Rink, a ranch hand who strikes it rich, although well-crafted and occasionally even inspired, remains largely incidental to the Dean legend.
The image that has kept Dean alive for generations born long after his death is the persona he created in "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause." The movie incarnation of American adolescence had been waiting patiently for a young actor who had the nerve to reveal his own insecurities and pain combined with the personal magnetism to keep our sympathy while doing so. These qualities allowed Dean to show us the pain of adolescence without causing us to turn away in horror or shame.
I am reminded of a powerful fantasy image from a poem by Stephen Crane. He tells of coming upon a man who is crouched by the side of the road, eating his own heart. Asked if it is good, he replies that it is bitter, then adds, "But I like it...because it is bitter, and because it is my heart."
That's why we can't forget James Dean: because he was bitter...and because he was our heart.