Wednesday, February 16, 2011

James Dean as Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause


While there had been other teenage characters and performances in movies before Rebel Without a Cause was released in 1955, they’ve mostly been forgotten, and James Dean’s performance is now affectionately known as the first real teenager performance. Also, like most actors that play teenagers today, James Dean was older than his 17 year-old character; he was 24 when he played this part. The movie was released only a month after Dean’s death from a fatal car crash. His part in Rebel became his most iconic role, as he was the voice of the frustrated middle class American youth at that time and for the years to come. Out of the three movies that Dean starred in before his death, Rebel was the only one he didn’t receive an Oscar nomination. Rebel Without A Cause may not represent Dean’s best performance, but it’s certainly his most iconic and influential. Almost every actor that has portrayed a teenager since James Dean, good or bad, has borrowed traits from his performance, whether they’re conscious of it or not.
Today’s modern audiences, when they watch Rebel Without a Cause, feel the movie is outdated and Dean’s performance is over-the-top. While both of those things may be true, I feel that the movie and Dean’s performance are stylized in such an interesting and bizarre way that it’s still completely captivating to watch over 55 years later. 
           The first introduction we get to Jim Stark (James Dean) in the film is when his parents are bailing him out of the local police station. In this first scene, Jim is shown cowering and appears to be in great distress over the fact that his parents are arguing. He then erupts with an anguished shout proclaiming, “You’re tearing me apart! You say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again!” Dean is doing so much as an actor in this scene, that almost by definition it can be characterized as over-acting. Although, after one has seen the film all the way through, his emotional outburst has significant subtext behind it. This extreme acting moment in the film turned out to be completely right for the material. 

Dean was an actor who was always very deliberate with his acting choices, and he knew that his extreme intensity during that scene could take some people out of the moment. It was a risky choice on Dean’s part that ended up paying off beautifully in the film. His introduction scene also gave a voice to teen angst that hadn’t really ever been seen before in film. Up until that moment, teenagers were rarely seen as being complex tortured individuals, and if they were troublemakers it was because of their economic status. However in Rebel the teenagers were from normal middle class families and were acting, seemingly, out of meaningless teenage rebellion.
Dean’s character was not only tortured and rebellious, he also was shown as being sensitive, thoughtful, and romantic. Through Dean’s performance the movie examines themes of masculinity, how is a man supposed to act? In one of the film’s most startling moments, Jim grabs his father, who’s wearing a pink bathrobe, and throws him across the room. Jim’s father is a man who has let his wife make all the decisions, and his son no longer respects him. Jim is shown as being reckless and unafraid of confrontation, he will not back down from a knife fight or a chicken car race. He’s also shown as being caring and responsible in the way he takes the character of Plato (Sal Mineo) under his wings. Dean’s character is also a hopeless romantic who falls in love with the beautiful, but troubled girl, Judy (Natalie Wood). Jim Stark was a fully-realized psychologically compelling character that acted out because he was unable to communicate with his parents and other adults. James Dean was able to play this character so well because he could directly relate to his own life.
James Travers, film critic for the website filmsdefrance.com, explains, “The actor lost his mother when he was aged nine and his father subsequently abandoned him, handing over the responsibility of parenthood to an aunt and uncle.  It is hard to say how much of his own personal experiences Dean manages to bring to the part, but his performance is extraordinary in its realism, intensity and pathos. The iconic image of James Dean as a rough boy with a tender interior is fashioned largely on his portrayal of the likeable teenage rebel in this film.” (link)
James Dean and Robert Pattinson
Nowadays, when teenagers are seen in movies and television  they’re usually portrayed as being complicated, drama-filled individuals. This kind of in-depth melodramatic teen performance was first given by James Dean, and his performance is still held in the highest regard. Almost every good looking young actor that has come around since Dean has been compared to him at some point in their career. Consider Twilight actor Robert Pattinson, who also bears a striking resemblance to Dean. A lot of critics have criticized Pattinson’s acting style, for they feel he’s doing an unflattering impression of James Dean. Pattinson said this, about constantly being compared to Dean, “I don't think that's a bad thing at all, quite the opposite in fact. I think James Dean was one of the most influential people to young guys, especially actors, definitely in the last fifty years...I’m not ashamed to say, ‘yeah, I am very much influenced by him’ and to be even in the same ball park as him is amazing.” (link)
Dean’s performance in Rebel has almost become the catalyst in which critics will measure and compare other teenage actor’s performances; which is completely unfair because few actors have the talent and passion Dean had with his acting.
Marlon Brando and James Dean
If one gives the kind of emotionally charged, vulnerable, and stylized performance like Dean’s in Rebel Without a Cause they should expect to receive some criticism. A few critics view Dean as a Marlon Brando imitator, who was Dean's favorite actor, and say that  Dean relied on mostly unnecessary histrionic tactics in his acting. He was known for sometimes going a little overboard in his acting methods, and he did use the same method acting style that Marlon Brando popularized a few years earlier in On the Waterfront. The method acting style is supposed to help an actor achieve the most realistic performance possible. It's where the actor will do just about anything to absorb themselves in their role, and some will draw on their own real life experiences to achieve the emotionality of the character. Marlon Brando revolutionized this type of acting for adult actors; James Dean did the same thing for younger actors.
James Dean will forever be an American Icon, in large part due to his tragic death that now represents the “live fast, die young” mentality that appeals to our disillusioned youth. Dean achieved his icon status mostly though because he was one of the most passionate and fearless actors there ever was. If he had lived a long life, James Dean's reputation as one of the greatest actors to ever live would only have continued to grow. 

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