Not every actor becomes a legend after just three films.
But, then, James Dean was not just every actor. He was, and remains, one of the icons of 20th century film. And if you take advantage of Warner Home Video’s release of “The Complete James Dean Collection” (see At Home’s Video Rentals on page 24), which is being released this week in honor of the upcoming 50th anniversary of Dean’s death, you’ll see why.
For the record, the three movies in the collection are – in the order of their original release – “East of Eden” (March 9, 1955), “Rebel Without a Cause” (Oct. 27, 1955) and “Giant” (Oct. 10, 1956).
Dean lived to see the release only of “East of Eden.” As has been chronicled in news stories, magazine articles, books, documentary films and nearly as many T-shirts as those bearing the likeness of Che Guevara, Dean was killed on Sept. 30, 1955, while speeding along a central California highway in his Porsche 550 Spyder.
No matter. The man, just 24 years, seven months and 22 days old, was dead, but the legend already had been born.
In many ways, Dean was a natural sign of his time. It’s hard these days to recall just what life was like in the first couple of decades between the end of World War II and the first echoes of what would become the war in Vietnam. But it was an era of amazing economic vitality for America, a period when highways were built, suburbs laid out, homes and cars purchased and the dream of financial solvency seemed available for all working Americans.
It was hardly a perfect place, of course. Many were denied work by virtue of their sex or the color of their skin, the threat of the Cold War and instant annihilation hung over everyone’s head and conformity made outcasts of anyone who looked, or dared even to think, differently than the status quo.
Which is where Dean came in. Along with Marlon Brando in “The Wild One,” not to mention dozens of nameless drive-in movies such as “High School Confidential!,” Dean symbolized the aimless, rootless sense of teen isolation that was a natural part of the ‘50s. And he did this not just in his films, particularly “Rebel Without a Cause,” but in the work he did in a number of TV programs and in the publicity photos that showed him cool and collected whether at work or play.
A student of the Actors Studio in New York, Dean studied with Brando and Julie Harris, and it was on the strength of an appearance in the 1954 stage play “The Immoralist” that he won a screen test that led to his being cast as the bad-boy brother Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel “East of Eden.”
It was a perfect fit, one that would allow Dean to speak for his generation. Take this speech from “Rebel Without a Cause,” in which young Jim describes what he hopes will give him peace: “If I had one day when I didn’t have to be all confused and I didn’t have to feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace. You know?”
Many of us do know, then and now, which is why Dean’s legacy is likely only to grow as the years slip by.
25 down, many to go
As of today, the Seattle Film Festival has 10 days to go (the final night is June 12). Which means that, if you take that vacation your boss owes you, you can catch as many as, oh, 80 movies.
Which would be a lot more than I’ve seen so far. Over the course of the festival’s first two weekends, plus an extra day or three, I’ve seen only 25 films. While one or two have sucked, most have been worth seeing.
My favorites so far: “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” Miranda July’s quirky comedy that just won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for best first film; “Thee-Iron,” an offbeat Korean film about the romance between a burglar and the abused woman he meets; “The Aristocrats,” a documentary about the grossest joke imaginable; “El Crimen Ferpecto,” a Spanish film about an arrogant salesman getting his comeuppance; “Adam & Steve,” a comedy about the romance between two men who have to overcome a rather embarrassing first meeting.
By the way, after laughing all the way through Craig Chester’s “Adam & Steve” – with the laughs largely thanks to the cast that includes Chester, Parker Posey, Chris Kattan and Malcolm Gets (F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle”) – I’d be willing to say that “Adam & Steve” is the funniest and most poignant romantic comedy that I’ve seen since “When Harry Met Sally.”
You can go online at www.seattlefilm.org/festival to find out what’s still available. Or you can call the box office at (206) 324-9996.
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