Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week Wasp returns for a Fourth Time to talk about both Giant a 1956 Epic Western from Warner Brothers directed by George Stevens and The Giant impact of James Dean’s short career.
TLDR: James Dean in only three starring films cements himself as one of the finest actors Hollywood has ever seen
This June for Pride Month I wanted to explore the filmographies of several famous Queer people. I decided to kick the month off with someone whose films I had been avoiding at that point for essentially my entire life. That actor was James Dean. The main reason I was avoiding Dean’s work was that by the time my childhood arrived (The 2000s and early 10s) James Dean had already become a giant figure in American pop culture especially nostalgia for the 1950s. Dean is easily up there with Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe for face most likely seen on the walls of any diner you stumble across in America while prowling for Pancakes and Black Coffee and that fact kind of filled me with a decades-long hype aversion for the man’s work. I was just unsure how any human being could live up to such Icon status. Fortunately when I finally took the plunge what I discovered exceeded my wildest expectations.
Rebel Without A Cause: This Teen Drama/Morality play about three friends the emotional Jim Stark (Dean) the Cute but Naive John “Plato” Crawford (Mineo) and the Sweet and Friendly Judy (Wood) is mostly an above-average example of its genre that is ascended to great status on the wings of the romantic subtexts between both Jim and John and Judy and Jim. From the first minute, Plato sees the new kid Jim stumble into the school he is stricken with affection for him. He literally spends most of his screen-time hanging onto every word and action Jim says. Jim for his part is into him too even giving Plato his Red Jacket towards the end of the film only to see his beloved tragically die in it when the police shoot him (Bury Your Gays applies here sadly.) Mineo isn’t the only one to fall head over heel for Dean. Natalie Wood also has great chemistry with James Dean that for me establishes the romance as more a Bisexual Love Triangle and less as the mandated Compulsory Good Heterosexual couple that was mandated at the time for any major movie coming close to having queer people in it. As for James Dean himself, this was the first of his three films I watched and already I was drawn into the raw emotions of his performance. Jim Stark has only moved to this high-school because his Mom rather than deal with the consequences of her son’s actions opts to uproot the family each time something goes wrong. In one of the best scenes of the film, emotionally distraught Jim is begging his Dad to let him stay this time instead of running away again.
East Of Eden: The second of the three films I watched was the adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name. This film smartly zeroes in on the last third of the book and is all about brothers Cal and Aron Trask and the rivalry they have over their father’s affections. This is easily James Dean’s best movie. He takes what is often my least favorite kid character The Overly Emotional Whiny Teenager and he cuts right down to the heart of it. Cal is a kid just being crushed with the weight that his Dad doesn’t love him, his Mom doesn’t want him, his brother barely tolerates him only so far as Cal stays out of his way, and his lack of self-confidence risks undermining every good idea he has. Dean takes all of this and runs with it he draws all the pain to the surface. From the way, he slurs some of his speech to his eyes always looking on the precipice of tears Dean delivers a shining example of how years of hurt and neglect can just start spilling out of someone.
Giant: This Epic Western spanning 30 years give or take from the 1920s to the 1950s is about The Benedict family mainly Husband Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and his Wife Leslie Benedict (Liz Taylor) James Dean plays the third act villain of the move Jett Rink a once sympathetic handyman on Benedict’s ranch Reata turned drunken slovenly rich pig of an oil baron by the corrupting influence of money and his own jealousy. This film like all great Epics deftly manages both the broad strokes of the changing history of Texas and the intimate details of the romance between its two leads. The film is surprisingly critical of Texas (and more broadly America) for its time (1956.) Leslie Benedict is constantly getting offended by the racism and sexism of those surrounding her, Jett Rink is slowly undone by his own wealth and success, the movie cuts from a bunch of ranchers bragging about how profitable WWII is for them to a funeral as one of the characters returns home in a casket, and Bick becomes disillusioned with the world he is in after seeing both Rink’s pathetic state and the affect anti-Mexican racism has on his Daughter In Law and Grand-kid. All three lead actors in this are wonderful imbuing all their characters with likeability even as the two men take turns acting like boorish assholes. For James Dean, this marks an attempt (only cut short by his fatal car crash) to break out of the moody teen roles of his first two movies. His efforts for this movie pay off as even in his more limited screen time (this is really the Taylor/Hudson show) he manages to give a whole range of performances. He goes from a put upon nice guy in act one to a triumphant self-made man in act two only to crash quite literally at his own hotel party into a drunken shell of a man who nobody really likes anymore. While I wouldn’t call Jett Rink his best character (that would be Cal Trask) Dean does prove he’s got the range and that he would have been great in more varied roles had he gotten the chance.