James Dean – Hollywood’s Rebel


James Dean portrait.

FULL NAME:

James Byron Dean

BORN:

February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana.

DIED:

September 30, 1955, near Cholame, California.
Buried at Park Cemetery in Fairmount, IN

Overview:

James Dean appeared on the Hollywood scene in the 1950s like a supernova, exploding for a few moments in a blazing burst of talent, only to suddenly die at the height of his career. But though he had one of the most spectacularly brief careers of any film star, having major roles in only three movies, he achieved a world–wide popularity that has never dimmed. If it is true that the youth of every generation are predisposed to idolize any celebrity who reflects their own particular brand of rebelliousness, someone who mirrors their unique inner turmoil, it is also true that many generations never find that person. But for those growing up in the 1950s, when many young people felt alienated and frustrated with the apparent hypocrisy of their elders, James Dean proved to be that elusive archetype.

Career Highlights:

First Professional Acting Job:

In 1950 James Dean had a small part in a commercial for Pepsi–Cola, for which he earned $30.

First Speaking Part in a Movie:

In 1951 Dean got a speaking part in the war film “Fixed Bayonets” starring Richard Basehart and Gene Evans. His one line was, “It’s a rear guard coming back.” The line was later cut from the movie.

First Important Recognition as an Actor:

James Dean’s first important recognition as a “talent to be watched” was for being in the Broadway play “The Immoralist”, a dramatization of André Gide’s autobiographical novel about repressed homosexuality and the process of self–discovery. The production starred Louis Jourdan and Geraldine Page, and ran on Broadway from February 8 – May 1, 1954. Dean was cast as Bachir, a blackmailing Arab houseboy, and the reviewers of five major daily newspapers praised his performance. Although Dean left the play only two weeks after it opened on Broadway, due to a dispute with the producer, the part brought him to the attention of Elia Kazan who was casting a movie treatment of John Steinbeck’s novel, “East of Eden”, for Warner Bros.

First Major Film:

“East of Eden”, (1955). This film version of a John Steinbeck novel was called by one critic, “The first distinguished production in CinemaScope.” (CinemaScope was a wide–screen process that had premiered just two years before.) Set in a California farming valley in 1917, James Dean plays Caleb “Cal” Trask, a wild adolescent who rebels against his stern father (played by Raymond Massey) and discovers that his mother, believed to be dead, runs a nearby brothel. Although the New York Times reviewer at the time dismissed Dean’s performance as “a mass of histrionic gingerbread”, most reviews were very positive. Dean’s portrayal of confused vulnerability and a desperate desire to be loved still has the power to engage and touch the viewer. This was the only one of Dean’s three major films to be released before his death. He was nominated for, but did not win, an Academy Award for his performance in this film.

East of Eden.

Most Famous Film Role:

Jim Stark in “Rebel Without A Cause”, (1955). In his second major film James Dean portrays an idealistic but troubled and rebellious middle class youth who vainly searches for honesty and decency in a hypocritical world. Based loosely on a 1944 case study entitled “Rebel Without A Cause: The Story of a Criminal Psychopath”, this became the role with which most fans identify Dean. Although the film went on to receive three Academy Award nominations, James Dean was not nominated probably because he had received a nomination that year for “East of Eden”. “Rebel Without A Cause” was released on October 29th, 1955, a month after Dean died in an automobile accident.

James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause.

Third and Last Major Film:

“Giant” (1956). This epic story about a Texas ranching family was based on a 1952 novel by Edna Ferber. Spanning the 1930s and early 1940s, the story is about the arrogance of wealth, envy, prejudice, racism, and the buring desire to be accepted. James Dean plays Jett Rink, a poor ranch hand who envies the wealth of the Benedict family for whom he works. After Jett inherits a small plot of land and discovers oil, he becomes enormously wealthy and tries to prove that he is worthy of respect. But his wealth does not bring him the acceptance he desires, and in a climatic confrontation with “Bick” Benedict (played by Rock Hudson) Jett is shown to be vindictive, mean spirited, petty and insecure. Although the movie was released over a year after James Dean died, he received another Academy Award nomination for “Best Actor in a Leading Role”. Once again he did not win.

Biographical Notes:

James Dean, born at the Seven Gables apartment house in Marion, Indiana, was the only child of Winton and Mildred Dean. Shortly after James was born, his father, who had left farming to become a dental technician, moved the family 10 miles south to Fairmount, Indiana, where they lived for the next four and a half years. In 1935 Dean’s family relocated to Santa Monica, California.

James Dean on the set of Giant.

After James Dean’s mother died of cancer in 1940, his father sent the nine–year–old James back to Indiana to be raised by Ortense and Marcus Winslow, his paternal aunt and uncle, who were living on a farm outside of Fairmount. It was in Fairmount that James finished both grade school and high school. At Fairmount High School James proved to be an average student (he graduated 20th in a class of 49), but he excelled in sports, art, drama and band.

After graduation James returned to California to live with his father, and at the beginning of the following year (1950) enrolled at Santa Monica City College where he majored in pre–law. The following semester, however, he switched to UCLA (The University of California, Los Angeles) and immediately changed his major to Theater Arts. This change of major enraged his father who suddenly refused to support James any longer. His father believed strongly that “acting” would get James nowhere in life, and after a number of impassioned arguments he finally kicked James out of his home. They would never again be fully reconciled.

Forced to support himself for the first time, and short of money, James dropped out of UCLA in 1951 and worked at a number of menial jobs while pursuing his acting career. Ultimately it became clear that he would not be able to make ends meet in California. So, taking the advice of a few friends and supporters, he left for New York City to look for portentially greater opportunities in television and the legitimate theater.

After landing a number of small TV roles in New York City, and his first leading part on Broadway in the play “See The Jaguar” (which ran for only 5 performances), James successfully auditioned for Lee Strasberg’s celebrated Actors Studio. It was here that he learned the same Stanislavski “Method” of acting that propelled Marlon Brando, Montgomery Cliff, and Shelly Winters to stardom. Dean was 21 years old.

On Dean’s 23rd birthday the play “The Immoralist” opened on Broadway. James received excellent reviews for his talented portrayal of Bachir, a role which also brought him to the attention of Elia Kazan who was casting the Warner Bros. movie “East of Eden”. Kazan hired Dean for the movie’s lead role, and Dean was put under exclusive contract to Warner Bros. at a salary of $1,200 per week with a guaranteed minimum of ten weeks work. James Dean would never act on the stage again.

James Dean.

After “East of Eden” was completed Warner Bros. exercised its right to extend Dean’s contract, and in early 1955 the studio announced that Dean would play the role of Jim Stark in “Rebel Without A Cause”. He was to receive $1,250 a week for a minimum of 10 weeks. Before shooting began on “Rebel Without A Cause”, “East of Eden” opened to many positive reviews (incuding a rave review in Time magazine). It was at this time that Dean spent $4,000 to purchase a white Porsche 356 Speedster and began entering auto races.

A few days before “Rebel Without A Cause” started shooting, Warner Bros. confirmed that Dean would play the role of Jett Rink in the upcoming movie “Giant”. While he was still making “Rebel Without A Cause”, the studio extended Dean’s contract for his upcoming role. Dean would receive $1,500 per week for “Giant”, a total of $22,500.

Although “Giant” began shooting in Virginia before “Rebel Without A Cause” was finished, Dean wasn’t needed until the “Giant” crew moved to Texas. Before going to Texas, James raced his car in a Memorial Day road race in Santa Barbara. His car hit a hay bale, his engine blew, and he wasn’t able to finish. He decided to purchase a faster car.

During the final days of filming “Giant”, Dean was interviewed by Gig Young for a Warner Bros. informational short promoting “Rebel Without A Cause”. At the end of the interview, Gig Young asked Dean, “Do you have any special advice for the young people who drive?” Dean, wearing a cowboy hat and dressed in his Jett Rink costume, looked at the camera and said with an impish smile, “Take it easy driving. The life you might save might be mine.” Shortly after the interview Dean purchased a silver Porsche 550 Spyder sports car.

The James Dean crash scene.

Eight days after the principal photography for “Giant” was completed, at approximately 5:45 PM on September 30, James Dean’s Porsche collided with a Ford sedan near Cholame, California. Dean was taken to Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. He was 24 years old. “Rebel Without A Cause” opened one month later.

During the post–production editing of “Giant”, the actor Nick Adams was used to dub Dean’s voice where needed.

Afterward:

James Dean’s body was brought back to Fairmount, Indiana, and laid to rest in the Winslow family plot in Park Cemetery, a short distance from the farm where he grew up.

James Dean is one of only five people to have been nominated for a “Best Actor” Academy Award for their first feature role, and the only one nominated posthumously for an Academy Award twice.

In 1960 Dean’s Porsche Spyder disappeared while on exhibit in Florida. It has never been found. In 2006 a small piece of metal from the car was sold at auction for $10,000.

James Dean stamp.

In 1977 a James Dean memorial was errected in Cholame, CA, by Seita Ohnishi, a Japanese admirer. The stylized stainless steel and concrete sculpture contains the dates and hours of Dean’s birth and death, and a line from Dean’s favorite book “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

In 1995 Empire magazine voted James Dean one of the 100 “Sexiest Stars” in film history.

In 1996 the United States Postal Service, as part of its “Legends of Hollywood” series, issued a commemorative stamp honoring James Dean.

In 2005 the intersection of highways 41 and 46 near Cholame, where Dean’s fatal accident occurred, was officially named “The James Dean Memorial Junction”.

Votes from readers of Entertainment Weekly magazine rated Dean the 22nd “Greatest Movie Star” of all time. The American Film Institute placed Dean at #18 on their list of “The 50 Greatest Screen Legends”.

According to Forbes magazine the James Dean estate still earns around $5 million a year from endorsements and the licensing of his image.

© 2006 The Picture Show Man. All Rights Reserved.


The following products will help you explore this subject further:

BOOKS:

  • 75 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards, (2003) by Robert Osborne
  • The Films of Nicholas Ray: The Poet of Nightfall (2nd Edition), (2004) by Geoff Andrew
  • Giant: George Stevens, A Life on Film, (2004) by Marilyn Ann Moss
  • The Making of Rebel Without A Cause, (2004) by Douglas L. Rathgeb
  • The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made, (revised & updated 2004) edited by Peter Nichols & A.O. Scott
  • Elia Kazan: A Biography, by Richard Schickel
  • The Film Encyclopedia (5th Edition), (2005) by Ephraim Katz
  • James Dean, (2005) by George Perry
  • James Dean: A Biography, (revised & updated 2005) by John Howlett
  • James Dean: At Speed, (2005) by Lee Raskin
  • James Dean: Fifty Years Ago, (2005) by Dennis Stock
  • Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making “Rebel Without A Cause”, (2005) by Lawrence Frascella & Al Weisel (paperback edition)

DVDs:

  • The Complete James Dean Collection, (3–movie box–set)
  • East of Eden, (2–disc Special Edition)
  • Giant, (2–disc Special Edition)
  • Rebel Without A Cause
  • James Dean – Forever Young, (documentary)
  • James Dean – Sense Memories, (American Masters documentary)

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The Picture Show Man website was established in 2004 to be a comprehensive and free resource for anyone interested in vintage movies. Our focus is the history of motion pictures from the beginning of its development in 1890, to the end of 1960.

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