The Complete James Dean Collection
November 5, 2005
Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray, George Stevens, ,
Starring: James Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, Burl Ives, Richard Davalos, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Carroll Baker, Jane Withers, ,
For someone who had such a small, cinematic output—only three feature films—James Dean left behind an impressive legacy. Along with Marlon Brando, he best personified the Method style of acting where the individual would go to great lengths to feel and act as their character did. There is something about Dean’s brief career and persona that has made him a revered icon. Perhaps it is because he died so young and so tragically. Perhaps it is that he never had the chance to age and his death has immortalized his youthful good looks. Regardless, this year marks the 50th anniversary of his tragic death and in observance, Warner Bros. has released The Complete James Dean Collection, a box set that packages all three of his movies in 2-DVD special editions loaded with extras.
Based on John Steinbeck’s best-selling novel of the same name, East of Eden (1954) was Dean’s feature film debut. He plays Cal Trask, a loner who just wants to be loved by and looks for approval from his stern father (Massey) who favours his other son, Aron (Davalos), much to Cal’s dismay. Cal tries to engage his father in conversation but is constantly spurned because the patriarch just doesn’t understand his son. Cal is also jealous of his brother’s relationship with his nice girlfriend, Abra (Harris). They talk in seclusion about their plans for marriage while Elia Kazan frames Cal’s face through a small sliver of space between two blocks of ice as he watches the lovers from afar. He yearns to have that kind of loving relationships and this desire will bring him and Aron into direct conflict.
We first see Dean sporting what would become his trademark look: disheveled hair, sitting hunched over on a street curb with his head bowed slightly like some kind of shy, troubled person. His performance oscillates between internalized torment and explosive anguish. It is a very stylized Method performance with Dean sometimes mumbling his dialogue but also a very emoting like crazy. For the time, it was quite realistic and a revelation but now seems, at times, exaggerated. However, no one conveys angst and emotional turmoil quite like Dean, especially when he pleads, “Talk to me!” to his estranged mother at one point in the movie.
Dean would play the quintessential juvenile delinquent of the ‘50s in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). He is Jim Stark, a troubled youth who has been moved from town to town by his domineering mother (Doran) and meek father (Backus). He befriends Judy (Wood), who feels neglected and unloved by her stern father, and Plato (Mineo), whose parents are separated with his mother absent most of the time. They all share tortured home lives and this is what draws them to each other. They form their own makeshift family: Jim and Judy falling in love and acting as surrogate parents to Plato who clearly idolizes them. They are confused kids just looking for normalcy, comfort and love and are only able to really find it with each other. The film exposes the generation gap that existed between teenagers and adults in the ‘50s with startling clarity and epitomized by Jim’s anguished cry, “You’re tearing me apart!” when his parents argue.
Dean expands on the angst and frustration he displayed in East of Eden with a more complex performance. Jim just wants to have a strong father figure to admire and not the emasculated one he has (the polar opposite of his dad in Eden) to deal with. Dean conveys a wide range of emotions and even showcases a capacity for comedy. Like The Catcher in the Rye, there is something timeless and universal that Rebel Without A Cause taps into (anyone can relate to Jim, Judy or Plato’s feelings) and explains its enduring legacy.
Dean’s final film was Giant (1956), George Stevens’ epic adaptation of Edna Ferber’s book about three generations of Texas land-owners. Dean isn’t the star in this one, the focus is on the love affair between wealthy cattle baron Bick Benedict (Hudson) and the compassionate Leslie Lynnton (Taylor).
Dean plays Jett Rink, a hired hand at the Benedict ranch. His portrayal hints at the versatility he was developing. Finally, Dean doesn’t play some angst-ridden youth—although, he still is an outsider, always looking at the action from a distance. Jett is jealous of Bick because his family didn’t have the savvy to get rich like the Benedicts and so he resents being their hired help and is determined to become rich. This sets up the opposition between Bick who was born into money and Jett, a self-made man who strikes it rich when he discovers oil.
Stevens does a fantastic job of capturing the vast landscape of Benedict’s 595,000 acre ranch and the big blue skies above it. He juxtaposes this beauty by showing the tough, rigorous life that these people lead. For example, Benedict’s headstrong sister dies trying to tame a wild horse—the same horse that brought Bick and Leslie together in the first place.
The East of Eden DVD features an audio commentary by Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel who points out that this film is a variation of the Cain and Abel story. In person, Dean acted a lot like his character and Kazan didn’t like the young actor, initially, but realized that he was perfect for the role. Schickel delivers all the requisite information (mini-bios on cast members, how people were cast, etc.) but in such a mundane, passionless way.
“Forever James Dean” is an hour-long documentary on the contradictions of Dean’s life with interviews with friends and colleagues. It also examines the cult that developed after his death, including the people who wanted a piece of something, anything, he left behind. The doc also does a nice job tracing Dean’s life and his development as an actor with the only blemish being an awfully cheesy ‘80s song that dates it instantly.
“East of Eden: Art in Search of Life” examines the Steinbeck’s novel and how it was not just his take on the Cain and Abel myth but also a commentary on his relationship with his father and family. Steinbeck also intended to explore the struggle of good and evil in everyone.
There is a six minute reel of “Screen Tests” between Dean and Davalos that demonstrates how perfect the former was for the role and a natural performer.
In “Wardrobe Tests,” we see the cast try on various outfits for the camera in order to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s interesting to watch Dean’s behaviour during these tests: sullen in one segment, goofy in another and serious in yet another.
Also included is 19 minutes of deleted scenes. Cal and Aron have a late night talk about their father with Dean initially in the foreground, obscured by darkness, and then playing a mournful tune on a recorder that is pure Method acting.
The Rebel Without A Cause DVD features an audio commentary by Douglas L. Rathgeb, author of The Making of Rebel Without A Cause. He talks about how the opening scene was supposed to be a bunch of youths beating a shopkeeper but the censors didn’t like the violence and so it was cut. Rathgeb illustrates what a good improviser Dean was by pointing out bits of business that the actor made up on the spot. The writer speaks very knowledgeably about many aspects (casting, visuals, acting, themes and anecdotes) of the movie in this very informative track.
“James Dean Remembered” is an hour-long look at Dean that was made in the ‘70s. Co-stars Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo talk about their experiences working with the actor on and off-screen. Even Sammy Davis, Jr., who was with Dean shortly before he died, tells an amusing anecdote about Dean and Marlon Brando meeting at a party.
“Rebel Without A Cause: Defiant Innocents” traces the film’s origins from director Nicholas Ray’s fascination with juvenile delinquency to the film’s legacy. The film’s screenplay was very autobiographical of its author, Stewart Stern, in particular