Broadway Features and Reviews
When James Dean Played On Broadway
By Lauren Mastro, Broadway Magazine
Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today. Legendary Broadway and film actor and eternal pop culture icon James Dean exemplified his words in everything he did during his short life. His fearlessness and drive for success defined an entire generation and continues to intrigue young people today.
Unlike other famous actors in the 1950s who were born into the privilege and elegance of celebrity life, Dean's humble childhood began in the small farming community of Marion, Indiana. His father eventually moved the family to the film capital of the world, Los Angeles. After his mother died, he was sent back to Indiana to live with relatives and attend school. Dean's boyish charm and attractive All-American image made him a popular high school athlete and drama student.
The lures of Hollywood proved just too great for Dean, and he decided to move back out west to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career full time. As a Drama major at UCLA, Dean claimed his first major role as Malcolm in the Shakespeare classic Macbeth, beating out over 300 other actors for the lead.
Hollywood fame did not come easy for Dean at first, and he struggled to obtain even mediocre parts in the highly competitive West Coast film industry. Upon encouragement from mentor Rogers Brackett and fellow actor James Whitmore, Dean decided to try his luck in New York City. After appearing on several CBS television series, Dean was one of the youngest actors to be invited to study method acting at the prestigious Actors Studio under Lee Strasburg. Thus began the rapid and exciting rise of Dean's career.
Dean appeared in several popular television shows during the early 1950s like Robert Montgomery Presents and Kraft Television Theatre. He made his much-anticipated Broadway debut as Wally Wilkins in N. Richard Nash's 1952 production See the Jaguar alongside Arthur Kennedy and Constance Ford. The show closed after only five performances at the Cort Theatre, but several critics took notice of Dean's undeniable talent.
Walter Kerr, the esteemed critic for The Herald Tribune at the time, commented, "James Dean adds an extraordinary performance in an almost impossible role."
Dean continued to do theatre work, making off-Broadway appearances in Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis and The Scarecrow, but he was still searching for a breakthrough role. Dean's shining moment on the stage came in 1954, just two years after the unsuccessful run of See the Jaguar. He was cast to play Bachir in the theatre adaptation of Andre Gide's autobiographical novel The Immoralist. The play starred big names Louis Jourdan and Geraldine Page, and courageously explored repressed homosexuality and the process of self-discovery. His intense performance warranted the praise of several critics, and even earned him the 1954 Theatre World Award for the role.
"He was a boy with a wonderful sense of theater," commented director George Stevens.
Dean left the show after only a couple of weeks following a dispute with the producer. His performance, although brief, captured the attention of Elia Kazan, who was casting for a 1955 screen adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden. Dean landed the role of wild teen Caleb "Cal" Trask who rebels against his father (played by Raymond Massey) and learns his mother runs a brothel. The film received positive reviews, and was especially well-received by adolescents who could relate to Dean's tough, yet inwardly vulnerable, character.
Twenty-two-year-old Dean became one of the most sought-after film actors after his role in East of Eden. He followed it up in East of Eden with a starring role as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause alongside Natalie Wood and Dennis Hopper. His portrayal of an adolescent youth who desperately searches for honesty and sense in a hypocritical world made this role his standout performance. Teens across the nation could relate to Jim Stark's attraction to rebellion and frustration with reality. The film went on to receive three Academy Award nominations that year.
Dean's final film role came in Giant, in which he played the oil-rich Texan Jett Rink alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. The role displayed Dean's versatility as an actor since it was quite different from the adolescent, rebellious roles he had played in the past.
His versatility extended beyond film and theater to the racing track. Dean enjoyed the thrill of the fast lane and raced cars in several competitions as a hobby.
The twenty-four-year-old's extraordinary acting and racing careers were cut tragically short in 1955, however, when he died in a fatal car accident unrelated to his racing. He left behind a legacy that continued to influence celebrated performers like Bob Dylan, Al Pacino, and Martin Sheen. He received two posthumous Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in 1955 and 1956, for his performances in East of Eden and Giant. His roles, and overall attitude towards life, reached scores of adolescents seeking acceptance and identity in an increasingly complicated world. From his life on the stage to his life on the racing track, Dean always sought fulfillment in his experiences.
"All adolescents," Martin Mayer wrote in Esquire, "want to rope steers...and sculpt busts of famous novelists and drive a custom sports car and write poetry and be a great Hollywood star. Dean did it.... In a way, the kids feel he did it all for them."
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