30th September, 1955: The Death of James Dean

On the evening of September 30th 1955, driving his Porsche Spyder along Route 466 to a racing meet in Salinas, James Dean’s star was on the rise. He had just completed filming on George Stevens’ adaptation of the Edna Ferber story Giant (1956) – his third leading role – and had signed a multi-picture deal with Warner Bros. But when his car collided with another vehicle at an intersection, killing him almost instantly, James Dean was immortalised as a cult figure whose image still fascinates to this day. Here is a look back at his short, but memorable, life in film.

East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955)

In this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, the opening shots which introduce Dean as Cal Trask are telling. He sits on a sidewalk, brooding, watching a woman we eventually learn is his estranged mother. He is alone and the embodiment of the disaffected youth Dean would go on to make iconic.

Cal is a loner, dislocated from his own existence, struggling to find an identity which he perceives as the ‘bad’ son. He is constantly fighting with his brother Aron for the affections of their father, Adam. Rejected, Cal goes in search of his mother who he learns runs a disreputable business in the neighbouring town. A decidedly Oedipal drama, events are further complicated when Cal falls for Abra, his brother’s girlfriend.

What becomes apparent is that, while not the most classically gifted actor (he learned the ‘Method’ approach from the Actor’s Studio in New York), Dean has unrivalled presence. As Cal Trask he is restless, animalistic (referred to as ‘The Prowler’ by Abra) and jittery. His is an inner emotional torment bubbling to the physical surface.

This was the only one of his three films which Dean saw in its entirety and he would become the first actor to receive a posthumous Oscar nomination.

Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)

If East of Eden laid the template for James Dean’s star image, it was realised with this film, a paean for the young and disenfranchised in 50s America.

Dean plays Jim Stark, the eponymous malcontent with a troubled past, who has recently moved to the suburbs of Los Angeles with his ineffectual father and overbearing mother and grandmother. His home-life is a constant source of frustration (the famous refrain “You’re tearing me apart!”) and he doesn’t fit in at his new school. Eventually Jim forms friendships with two other social misfits: Judy (Natalie Wood) who hangs around with the ‘wrong sort’ in and out of school yet still craves love and approval from her father at home; and Plato (Sal Mineo), a virtual orphan being brought up by his kindly housemaid, who harbours gay feelings for Jim.

The introduction of Dean in the film is again significant as it serves as an ingenious visual shorthand for his character. This time, as the opening titles roll, we see Jim drunk in the street and playing with a wind up monkey. He covers it up with a newspaper and lays down next to it. This short prologue, which was apparently improvised by Dean following a long night of shooting, depicts Jim as at once rebellious, but also infantile.

Supposedly, as a result of Dean’s burgeoning star status following the release of East of Eden, Warner Bros ‘upgraded’ the film from B-movie flick to a prestige picture changing it from black and white to colour cinematography and giving it a bigger budget.

Giant (George Stevens, 1956)

Dean’s final film sees him playing Jett Rink, an opportunistic cowboy who works on the land belonging to Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and his new wife Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). The wealthy Texan landowner looks down on Rink and when Bick’s sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), his only friend, dies suddenly he promptly leaves the ranch to make it on his own with the small plot Luz left him in her will. Rink soon discovers that under his land flows the future lifeblood to capitalist America: oil. The one-time cowboy transforms into a successful businessman after he exploits the financial promise of the fuel which leads to a generation of conflict with the Benedicts.

It is a testament to Dean’s performance (which would earn him a second consecutive posthumous Oscar nomination) that when the film’s main story of the marriage of Bick and Leslie plays out, Giant comes alive when the unpredictable Rink appears. Dean provides two of the film’s highlights; a violent confrontation with Bick after discovering the oil on his plot and his final appearance, blind drunk, addressing a huge, empty hall after opening his own airport and hotel.

Certainly, Dean’s intense acting method didn’t sit well with everyone. Director George Stevens had numerous run-ins with the actor on set and Hudson apparently disapproved of his ‘unprofessional’ conduct. However, one might wonder whether James Dean would have achieved such success without these unconventional techniques, especially over such a short career.
The actor’s personal and professional life continues to intrigue us, with the numerous film, television and musical representations attempting to ‘fill in the gaps’ of a life which was all too brief.


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