James Dean – A Rebel Without A Pause

by | Apr 10, 2024 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

As an actor, James Dean revealed the subtle light which rests so eloquently on everyone. Like everything intimate, remote and transforming, when all was nearly apparent, he disappeared, leaving only his iridescent traces. This was his magical capacity. 

When he was just nine years of age when his mother passed away and he had a terrible anger towards her. He loved her desperately and she left him. It seemed to have a profound effect on him and he expressed it in terms of his art. 

He would see his father only occasionally for the rest of his life and therefore felt orphaned being raised by his grandparents instead. 

From a young age James felt a need to prove himself and was encouraged to get up on the stage when he was in the seventh grade. His decision to act was never prompted since his whole life had been spent in dramatic display of expression. 

A pastor took James under his wing and introduced him to art, classical records and yoga. He talked of poets and philosophers and exposed a world which lay beyond his youth with all its wonders and terrors which beckoned James. 

James loved to perform. Make believe was an easier way to communicate with his friends. But as he began to rely on acting to express himself it only made him more different.

He took acting seriously and in school plays James would make sure everything was exactly right. He’d nearly caused a riot by keeping pupils rehearsing one night until midnight. And the next day. 

His attitude was if you want to act, you have to give up everything for your acting. 

He was a precocious kid who made most of his adolescence by retaining the magical principles of childhood and asserting them with his expanding knowledge of the world. 

His ability to succeed especially on a physical plane, confirmed his belief in the mastery of magical action: he played basketball during his sophomore year; ran high hurdles on the track team; was champion pole vaulter and became a basketball star even though he was only five feet eight inches tall. 

Upon graduating James grandmother was convincing that acting was the thing that James was best at. When he appeared in a play called To Them That Sleep in Darkness, playing a blind boy, his grandmother wished he hadn’t played quite as good as he did. She cried all the way through. 

At UCLA he landed the part of Macbeth, his first big theatrical production. And like most drama students James spent his spare time in Hollywood and Burbank looking for bit parts that would lead to a contract with a major studio. 

He managed to secure a bit part in a Korean War picture delivering exactly one line. The line was eventually cut so all that remained was his dirty face on screen. 

There were other bit part roles that came his way but James wasn’t satisfied with bit parts and was eventually introduced by an actor friend of his, James Whitmore, to the Stanislavsky method. 

James professed his debt to Whitmore for helping him realise the difference between acting as a soft job and acting as a difficult art. Whitmore made James see himself and opened him up and gave him the key. 

He went on to advise James to go to New York and test himself against the uncertainties of an actors life in the theatre, refine himself and if possible become a member of the Actors studio. 

James was too ambitious, impatient and aware enough of his own talent to want to wait through another year of the kind of fluff he was being cast in and had made up his mind to leave for New York. 

He quickly began to carefully select what he wanted from the city’s elements, and bit by bit he literally made himself up. 

He was both mechanic and machine and his creation was to have monstrous proportions. Even before he tried for the Actors studio he was a student of the Stanislavsky method. Combing the city streets with a derelict’s fever, picking up soft, round moment from a fat lady at a lunch counter or steal a wink from a beggar. 

Stanislavsky recommended collecting these awful treasures to his students – a repertoire of gestures and mannerisms – the material of life from which an actor can build a character. 

All artists obsessed with their craft see the world as a storehouse of objects provided expressly for their use and James was no exception. 

He emerged from his three years in New York a different person. Not only was he no longer a country boy, his physical appearance had radically and irreversibly altered. New York was his laboratory, where pieces of himself flew apart and blended together. 

James made endless rounds to agents and he would take any bit parts that came along, and if he was ever forced to take temporary jobs as dishwasher, busboy, waiter or hustler, he never told anyone. The work was transient and he never stayed long at one job. 

He wrote poetry in his spare moments and even between clearing tables. 

There were nights where he had less than a dollar on which to eat and like a scavenger he took all the leftovers from the fridge and made a stew with some old vermicelli. Eventually eating the mess with the presence of tiny bugs floating atop the broth, quietly removing the little intruders and continuing to eat in silence. 

Eventually James was referred by a TV director to a talent agent who was not impressed since James didn’t fit any of his files, being too short, wearing glasses, didn’t talk or act like a juvenile and certainly wasn’t ready for a mature part. 

Nevertheless the talent agents assistant recognised something in James Dean right away and there and then began a business relationship that would last until his death.

Jane Deacy saw the talent in him and it was her persistence that put him in places where he could reveal it. She had the insight to see what he might become, the limitless faith to drive him and she calculated his value wisely enough to be sure he was never exploited. 

A chance encounter with another actress propelled James to write a scene with her to present as an auditions to the Actors studio. They reworked the scenes, adding dialogue, expanding characters – finally naming it Roots and rehearsed it for five weeks straight, inflicting it on anyone, anywhere, who would give them a reaction. 

When it was good enough to be understood they decided they were ready. 

Out of the one hundred fifty aspirants for the Actors studio James and Christine were two of the twelve chosen as finalists and out of that twelve, they were the only two accepted. 

Surprisingly James was scarcely at the studio at all and only came in a few times. And when he was there he hardly participated in anything. 

He stomped out of a session after doing one scene and then having his performance analysed by students and Lee Strasberg since he believed that for an actor whose method is so personal, it was the scraping and slicing he couldn’t sit still for. 

If he was to let them dissect him, like a rabbit in a clinical research lab, he might not be able to produce again and this might’ve even sterilised him. 

The method is a system of acting which demands that its disciples use every kind of feeling from their real life in the parts they are to dramatise: every details of the past, every experience, every sensation, pains and anger and raw wells of feeling are all drawn upon to build the character. 

James practiced the Method on himself almost daily, continually taking himself apart, tearing away the superfluous tissue of his body image and examining that crystal skeleton at the centre in its bone white light: ripping away layers to find roots. 

It is as if the fictional personality and the real personality are anti images which cannot co-exist – one of them has to go – and for an actor obsessed with his work it’s obvious which one will disappear. 

From the beginning of his career as a New York Television actor James received enthusiastic responses even for his earliest roles. 

Among actors TV work was hardly considered respectable. There was a definite stigma attached to it.

One of the most painful experience for a young actor is the constant rejection from agents, casting directors and producers. James tried to deflect this by pretending it didn’t matter. That it was all bullshit. 

Still the daily dismissals could be abrasive and James was often turned away because he was too short, sloppily dressed or wore glasses. 

In one of his TV roles James behaviour was restrained and uncomfortable but even then there was an excitement and intensity about him that he transmitted viscerally to the TV audience. 

He was always solitary, awkward and shy at rehearsals and even in his loosening up with other actors his clowning often became a self parody that he would hide behind. 

One advantage he gained from TV performances is that he perfected his style and was able to learn rapidly in the fast paced world of it. Whereas a movie took four months or longer to shoot. James could be a different character every week on TV. 

James had a habit that other actors and often directors would find irritating. He would quiz the director constantly about the character, wanting to get a handle on him, a way to relate to something in himself that would give the character a special depth. 

He was always thinking about his character and every time he did he would discover new things about him that he’d want to say. This probably stemmed from an honest attempt of his to perform well. 

James’ style of acting was very introspective which came by naturally to him and for a lot of actor it didn’t. It was an acting style developed from his own personality. A lot of personal stuff got churned up when James acted, and when that happened he got very emotional and his life became involved in his acting. 

By the spring of 1954 James had nearly completed the evolution of that inner image of himself – James Dean. His body, face and behaviour had become a conscious vehicle for the expression of that fabrication of the self personality. He had created a powerful telegraphic system for transmitting his most important message – his face. 

In New York he had begun a curious metamorphosis: he had arrived with a face of American bedrock, as pure and strong as a block of marble, and from this matrix he shaped himself. 

He loved books, but mostly those that were profound, obscure and intense. Although he had little patience and rarely read them, he looked on books as talismans, elusive substances that connected him to his past and his mother. 

He studies Bach, dance moves and played the bongos. He would sit in a corner with a set of bongos and stay there for hours. He had the most incredible sense of concentration. Changing beats, figuring a rhythm. He’d get into a piece of music and nothing could distract him. 

For James an actor had to interpret life, and in order to do so must be willing to accept all experiences that life had to offer. In fact, an actor must seek out more of life than life puts at ones feet. 

In the short span of his lifetime an actor must learn all there is to know, experience all there is to experience – or approach that state as closely as possible. An actor must be superhuman in his or her endless struggle to inform themselves. 

When Elia Kazan was casting for roles in his upcoming film East of Eden, he had seen James during his brief appearance at the Actors Studio and had recognised his talent. It was the very qualities that Kazan had disliked about James as a student – his sulkiness, rebellion and pride – that made him want to test James for the part of Caleb. 

Kazan would get a kick out of working with unknowns, actors who are hungry. They would be like fighters on their way up. It’s a life or death struggle for them and they give their utmost to the role. This quality disappears later. They eventually become civilised and normal. 

The more success an actor had, according to Kazan, the more they acquired the look of wax fruit; they were no longer devoured by life… he tried to catch his actors at the moment when they are still, or again, human. And if you had a human actor, at that moment, you can slip your hand inside, touch him or her and wake them… 

East of Eden marked the beginning of James movie career, an intense period in which he made a total of three films. In his first starring role he identified so strongly with its heroic theme and relied on his ability as a chameleon to slip from mask to mask, occasionally giving us an intimate glimpse of the venerable spirit who would flash a look as if to say ‘well, I’m really human too, or had you forgotten?’

Drawing from his own experience and skills as an actor, James used this hero to communicate what he couldn’t say in his own life.

Rebel without a Cause, his next major role in a film, is clearly James Dean’s film. In it he plays himself, both victim and hero and he injects the film with all the diffused fragments of his own personality. 

The theme for the film is metamorphosis: the evolution of a new generation. The changes from child into adult which are more rapid than any changes since the first year of life. 

James insisted on utter realism that even the fighting veered on truthfulness. The challenge of creating the character of Jim Stark provoked James to his greatest achievement as an actor but it also terrified him. 

James was also known for loving of racing cars. He wanted speed and in this exhilaration of dizziness he could find himself. It was the only time he felt whole. 

There’s been speculation that James speeding was a manifestation of his death wish. During his races James normally won, not with skill but with sheer nerve and a reckless disregard for himself. 

James projected the wildness, the torment, the cursed tenderness of a rootless generation. 

James message was transmitted before he said a word on screen. 

In James Dean the youth back then discovered itself. 

During the filming of his third and final film Giant, as soon as James got to location he got into his costume of cowboy boots, Levi’s, vest, denim shirt and ten gallon hat and never changed clothes off camera or on until the scene where he had to transform himself into an ageing character in the film. 

James in various interviews spoke at length about his love and hate relationship with acting. He was known for saying that acting is the loneliest thing in the world. The stage is like a religion; you dedicate yourself to it and suddenly you find that you don’t have time to see friends, and it’s hard for them to understand. You don’t see anybody. You’re all alone with your concentration and your imagination and that’s all you have. You’re an actor. 

After his death, James was nominated posthumously as best actor for both his performances in East of Eden and Giant respectively. But the motion picture academy refrained from awarding him the prize. 

James Dean and rock n’ roll expressed a changing state of mind in the 50’s that audiences did not completely understand yet intuitively embraced. 

He was a figure of sensuality and repression, fantasy and craft, organic yet manufactured, boy and star. The adolescent dreamer, a solitary figure and a symbolic agent for change.  

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