The Legend of James Dean

source: Photo by Richard Miller

A lot has been written about James Dean.

Whether it be about his sexuality, his legacy or his many, many many, adventures into method acting, people seem to be absolutely enthralled with the sandy-haired actor.

Is the public infatuation with James Dean similar to the reason why Marilyn Monroe is held in such regard? Did his early death cause the movie-going public to look at his 3 films with rose-tinted glasses?

If these things are true, is it possible that because of his death, Dean‘s acting ability is, dare I say, overblown?

Dean, born February 8th, 1931, was a shy boy, always getting into trouble with authority figures in some way or another. The only person who really understood him was his mother, saying that she was the only one who was, “capable of understanding him.”

After his mother died in 1938, Dean was sent to live with his grandparents in Fairmount, Indiana where he would live out the rest of his childhood.

Fast forward to July 1951.

Dean was finally getting his big break as an actor.

James Dean 2
source: Sanford Roth

Starring in a multitude of TV series, Dean honed his craft and eventually in 1953 got his ‘big break’ in the Elia Kazan drama East of Eden.

Inevitably, his performance as Cal Trask gained him attention, which led to other roles in films like Rebel Without a Cause and my personal favorite 1956’s Giant.

Sure, these are fantastic movies and while various critics sang his praises, were Dean’s performances any good?

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with James Dean. I appreciate all that he’s done as an actor, but part of me believes that his acting ability was way overblown.


Yes, I will get some flack, but hear me out.

Dean was known for his method acting. He was very good at what he did, but he wasn’t the best at it. Compared to fellow actors Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, or even Paul Newman, Dean seemed to have a tendency to overdo it at times.

Take Rebel Without a Cause for example. Truth be told, Sal Mineo was the better actor in that film. I found Dean to be melodramatic and a bit too extra at times. Even Natalie Wood (a woman whose movie I don’t particularly care for) acted circles around him.

Take this scene for example. You catch my drift?

James Dean 3
….maybe next time, Jimmy.

This isn’t the case with all of Dean‘s movies.

I absolutely adore Giant, it’s one of his best roles. For some reason, he’s much more subdued in that role compared to his other films. Perhaps it has to do with him having a  director like George Stevens, or maybe it was Dean maturing into his acting.

Who knows?

But, the difference between these two films is staggering. Dean‘s quality in Giant makes me forgive him for overacting in RWaC.

No offense to Dean‘s legacy or his avid supporters, but maybe, just maybe, if he started out easing his way into his acting style instead of throwing all his chips on RWaC I would enjoy him a lot more.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

10 thoughts on “The Legend of James Dean

  1. It’s a fair argument and a bold one though I disagree–for the most part. Keep in mind that by today’s standard Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford would all be considered an “overactors”, method or no method. (I know Davis and Crawford weren’t considered method actors.) Dean’s bravado–his flamboyance–was the epitome of his style. Though he was a more experienced actor than his three major film roles would attest, he was still honing his craft. The fact that he was better in Giant proves he growing as an artist when his life was cut so tragically short.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hmm. I agree with your points. You’re 100 percent correct about Joan and Bette. By today’s standards they would be considered overactors – haha. Yes, maybe I was a bit too harsh on Dean. I will certainly go back and watch his films to see if I’m missing anything. I trust your word on this, I just have to change the way I look at things! Haha. I really wish his life wasn’t cut short…. I probably would’ve been his biggest fan!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. One of the coolest dudes who ever lived! I kind of agree with you about his overacting in some parts of Rebel Without A Cause, the “You’re tearing me aparrrttt!”scene instantly springs to mind. He was a good actor though and I wish he could have made more films.

    Liked by 1 person

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