Key Roles: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant
It seems unnecessary to list James Dean’s “key roles.” Given that there were only three, they are all vital to both his legend and his deserved place so high on a best actors list. What Dean’s acting across his performances in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant illustrates is an uncanny ability to just unravel, harnessing the wellspring of feelings his characters experience into controlled outbursts of raw emotion. Being a student of method acting, Dean understandably displays a certain ugly realism in his portrayals, but, even more so than that, Dean is a singular figure among actors. The sheer ferocity of his emotions still impress to this day.
Dean is a symbol of teenage disillusionment, and two scenes in particular capture the sensitivity, pain and aggression that fuels his legendary status. In East of Eden, Dean’s Cal Trask is bitter and jealous of the favoritism his father (Raymond Massey) shows to his pure, perfect brother Aron (Richard Davalos). But his character goes through hell, having to bear the burden of the gritty truth, discovering that they’re mother runs a brothel. When Cal tries to gift his father his latest profits and is rebuffed with yet another “why can’t you be like Aron” spiel, he breaks down. The script actually called for Cal to run from the house, but Dean famously improvised his wholly overcome reaction, literally wallowing in rejection as he cradles himself by the dining table and desperately clings to his father like a whimpering child before finally storming out of the house.
In Rebel Without a Cause, Dean once again translates these brutal emotions into blubbering hysterics. As the frustrated teen Jim Stark, he is similarly outcast and, once again, seeks approval from a father (Jim Backus) unwilling to give it. When his perpetually bickering parents come to pick up a drunken Jim from the police station, Dean delivers his most famous line: “You’re tearing me apart!” In the face of the staid acting from Backus, it’s a bit over the top, but that’s the point: Jim’s frustrations multiply and build until his only recourse is violent outbursts. That angered accusation later turns into a physical assault when Jim literally strangles his father in frustration.
There’s no doubt that Dean had the capacity to portray something beyond teenage angst, but his short-lived career only saw him play these tortured figures. At least with Giant, Dean had the opportunity to play somewhat against type. He was no longer a rebellious teen, but his Jett Rink was just as troubled, just as put-upon as ever. The through line of these three major roles is unquestionably Dean’s commitment to the authenticity of his characters’ emotions, his measured interpretation of characters on the brink and his willingness to succumb to their sheer aggression. – Katherine Springer