Name all three movies James Dean starred in before his untimely death in 1955.
Chances are you’ll name Rebel Without A Cause – his second starring role in what has come to define him and beatniks like him. So strong was his performance in Rebel, so strong in fact that actors almost 60 years later use his lead as a template in portraying the ’50s. The archetypical “rebel” demanded so much of his life, but paradoxically, you’ll be hard pressed to find a fan or a detractor who still wonders what the rest of his career could have offered. After his performance in Rebel – immediately following Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and immediately preceding George Stevens’ Giant – he certainly, if nothing else, curated a ratio of greatness-to-role unmatched. Wherein thousands of actors have come and gone almost none have accomplished what Dean did after just three roles.
As his last film, Giant allowed James Dean to explore his relationship with a future self, leaving on-screen a record of gargantuan greatness. Sprawled out over three-plus hours, Giant follows Texas men and women as they deal with oscillations in the American Dream, shifting from property ownership and family preservation to wealth speculation and cash hoarding; these motifs play out over and over…and over again in the next 60 years, both on screen and in real life – and we will notice that technology and communication convenience has piercingly demonstrated the dichotomy between the many ideologies of success. Dean, as prospering oil tycoon Jett Rink demonstrates the latter so convincingly, so astutely, that we’ll still wonder if Dean wasn’t meant for greatness in 1955 or 2055. The best actors radiate on screen; the all-time greats soar off it.
As a primer, both a reflection and a warning, Stevens’ epic not only demanded the best of Dean to explore the future of himself, Giant also offered archetypical performances from Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. This odd couple helped to reflect 25 years in 3 hours, the shifting attitudes on a more personal level: north vs. south expectation, marriage dynamics and again the American Dream.The setting in Texas allows another comparison: the Mexican/American dynamic, when (without rapid communication) racism ran rampant. We track Hudson’s Jordan “Bick” Benedict through his relationship with the men and women in his life: his sister, his wife, his rival, his employees, his children, his grandchildren and the populace at large, which knows him for his money and for his land. He’s the great constant that allows the rest of the cast to make choices and demonstrate the motifs explored. The intriguing chemistry with his wife (Taylor as Leslie Lynnton Benedict), who argues for progressive reform while his world watches in complacency and the relationship with his conspicuously different children provide a canvas for the message: even the most hardened among us have capacity for change.
Not James Dean though: his character changes the least over the course of the film. Jett Rink lusts for what Benedict has, and every time he gets it (Benedict’s land) or doesn’t (Benedict’s wife) he’s never satisfied; he always wants more. Rink fits in with modern wealth more than he did with 50s wealth. Funnily enough, so does Dean. It’s easy for us to imagine him working with Scorcese and Chris Nolan and he doesn’t seem out-of-place in the pantheon of modern dramatic actors. His life, while culminating too soon, burned brightly and for Dean, we can speculate that this role was less of an acting job and more of a personality bullhorn. Few roles have inspired such creativity with so little ease; one thinks of George C. Scott as General Patton in Patton. His character, Jett Rink, unintentionally left a tribute to Dean as a young man and to Dean as an old man.
It’s hard to imagine the film course-correcting to fit James Dean’s death most of the way through Giant‘s production. It almost seems fitting as a mirror to Jett’s life that Dean would die just as some kind of catharsis might mark the film. Instead, we see Benedict, after decades of bitterness and old-world coldness fight for his family, almost belying the archetype to spite his generation. Twenty-five years (really over three hours) later, the Benedict family earns the right to reflect on life through the filter of success. In what would be the most touching scene, Benedict gleams at his mult-racial grandchildren and declares himself a failure for not securing this family’s future in his ranch. He is, according to his wife, the true giant for accepting change. Dean gets no catharsis.
James Dean’s last scene is him slumped over the conference room, drunk. How fitting.
I have not seen 1956’s Best Picture winner, Around the World in 80 Days, but I’m sufficiently bored that the Academy deemed the adaptation of Jules Verne’s gigantic novel the best representation of film that year. More intriguing is the mix of films nominated that year. Along with Giant and Around the World in 80 Days, 1956 gave us Friendly Persuasion, The King And I, and The Ten Commandments. The diversity is more well-rounded than the winner would eventually represent. As far as cultural impact, save for perhaps waning recognition, The King And I best represents the mid-50s, or at least The Ten Commandments, which certainly might have been the too-obvious choice in the 50s. As far as Giant, James Dean left us too early and it might have been ever too irrelevant to drape him in film’s highest honor.