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By Jess Fenton
7th January 2021

Almost two years ago I sat down and watched my very first Marilyn Monroe film. It was awesome. Since then, I've watched a further zero Marilyn films because I'm an idiot. I've now seen more films about Marilyn than I have starring her. The gaps in my cinema knowledge are wide and varied - and dare I say it, a little embarrassing. However, thanks to COVID-19 (and the smallest of silver linings), I've had time to do some catching up. 1983's 'After Hours' and 1987's 'Raising Arizona' were among the most recent Spakfilla viewing sessions, but I decided to go further back once I realised that the 8th of February 2021 would have marked James Byron Dean's 90th birthday. Again, I'm ashamed to admit that I've never seen a James Dean film, and that I knew even less about James than I did about Marilyn. Never too late to right a wrong, I binged all three of JD's feature film performances to find out what all the fuss was about and why by the tender age of 24 this young man had accomplished what most people spend their whole lives trying to do: reach icon status.

East of Eden (1955)
I was struck first by how emotional Cal Trask (James' character) was. He was cripplingly vulnerable, and was often seen crying or lashing out. It's not what I expected of a young character in 1955 (although the film is set in the 1910s). But then again, this was all part of the allure, right? Dean was emotional on-screen, effortlessly cool off-screen. The perfect combination for the youth of the day to look up to. Not one for the posturing ways of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the acting style got old quickly for me. I soon found myself likening the actor's overly dramatic running style to those on muscle relaxers and giving each defeated runoff a score based on how many pills one would have to take to run like that, or collapse against a wall in such a fashion. While the story was interesting enough, Hollywood's idea of a happy ending was whacked! After almost two hours the brother (and Cal's only ally) has now snapped, is insane AND shipping off to fight in the war. The dad has had a stroke at the idea of losing his favoured son in battle, but everything is honky dory because bad seed Cal has decided to stay and steal his brother's fiancé. Yay?

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Honestly, not at all what I expected. I thought James' character Jim Stark was going to be the epitome of cool and suave. That red jacket, the cigarette hanging loosely from his lips. But nope. He was once again an emotional, disaffected youth, made fun of for being an outsider and desperately trying to see his father as someone he can look to. But then people start dropping like flies and there's a crazy standoff, but once again it's a happy ending because he gets the girl... after he kills her boyfriend (sort of) and his (sort of) best friend dies. Cool?

Giant (1956)
With a terrible title and a 201(!) minute running time, I was not looking forward to this one. However, getting to tick off a James Dean film and my very first Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor film, I persevered. And was rewarded. 'Giant' turned out to be my favourite among the three. Elizabeth Taylor... holy smokes, did she live up to the hype. Sensational. As for Rock Hudson - unlikable character, plus that terrible Netflix show 'Hollywood' has ruined him for me. Damn you, Ryan Murphy! Set over 25 years, there was a lot more to take in and grasp here. It also featured threads of sexism, racism and wealth disparity - again, not ideas I thought I would have been at the forefront of a piece of entertainment for the '50s. Colour me surprised and excited. Despite what his future Oscar nomination suggests, James is a supporting character here yet he manages to capture poor, rich, sympathetic, empathetic, desperate, inappropriate, drunk, sober, grieving, happy and unrequited. Does that equal a happy ending? ...Kind of. But he wasn't actually involved. That whacky Hollywood strikes again.

The stars simply aligned for this man, and then as stars tend to do, they burned out.

Where does James Dean stand now?
For someone so young and green, he made incredible career choices and nailed every one of them. There's no denying his talent, but let's face it, the moment he appeared on screen the first thought that popped in my head was "Sweet Jesus, that's one good-looking boy!" Looks-wise, he reminds me of Brad Pitt meets Daniel Craig. I mean, that smile is undeniably Craig. He had the looks, the talent, the spark, the attitude, and a thirst for danger and adrenaline. While that combination isn't exactly common, it's not quite rare either. So why this guy? If he had survived, could that momentum and level of stardom have kept going? Unfortunately, there are far too many other examples of the time that suggest no. Perhaps he was fated to die young. Of course, whatever answers we come up are pure speculation. But you have to admit that sometimes in life, there's that perfect storm; it's not just who he was, but when he was and how he was. The stars simply aligned for this man, and then as stars tend to do, they burned out.

James Dean earned two Academy Award nominations within 12 months with a filmography of just three. When people in the industry talk about having "it", they should just hold up a poster of Dean. And yet in 2021, not one of these three films is currently available on a streaming platform. You can't even rent or download them from iTunes. Thankfully DVDs step in where modern viewing practices fail. Which begs the question - is James Dean still an icon, or just pop culture fodder? Reduced to a t-shirt? A poster? Now a little wiser and with a little more cinema under my belt, I sincerely hope he's still an icon and remains one for generations to come. He deserves it. With his name still in the zeitgeist, perhaps more people like me will come along with enough curiosity to follow the rabbit hole down to the truth. Or is it too late? What's to become of any of our Golden Age icons?

For those in the know, or who are old enough to remember James Dean, he's still revered for his acting. However, directors Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh are about to use a CGI version in the latest Vietnam War tale, 'Finding Jack'. Will it look like shit? All evidence points to yes. Is it insulting and completely disrespectful to his talent and legacy? Absolutely. Is it a money-grabbing gimmick? Oh, you betcha. So? Those in charge don't care. Those speaking up aren't being heard. Will you pay money to watch a film starring James Dean but not actually acted by James Dean? Has technology gone too far, and is cinema trying to play god? Playing Devil's advocate, is this a way to keep these names alive and remembered? One thing's for certain, it'll have people talking. James Dean back in conversation 67 years after his death - wow, what an age we live in. I wish he could have seen it. Happy birthday, James.

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