“The time-and-place for Dean’s performances is always now, in the moment of its creation, and he resists any technique that obscures that fact.”
James Dean was a bad actor. “Dean had no technique to speak of,” Elia Kazan remarks in his autobiography. “When he tried to play an older man in the last reels of Giant, he looked like what he was: a beginner. . . . On [East of Eden], Jimmy would either get the scene right immediately, without any detailed direction . . . or he couldn’t get it at all.”1 Dean “didn’t want to be bothered with such details as technique,” the biographer Val Holley writes, noting that Dean’s fellow drama students at UCLA were “struck by his lack of concern with becoming well-rounded” as a performer. According to Holley, the severest criticism of Dean’s work “was that he often had no perspective on the time and place of the character he was playing”; Holley reports an anecdote in which a classmate was exasperated to learn that Dean, whose first television appearance (other than a Pepsi commercial) was a 1951 part as John the Apostle, did no research for the role. Dean’s lack of interest in research persisted throughout his short career: Holley describes one of Dean’s last performances, a 1955 television role as the son of a wealthy French family, as exhibiting a “painfully obvious” indifference to grounding his work in the particularities of time and place.2
Of course, what some of Dean’s more classically trained peers took as a distressing lack of technique might not appear so from another perspective. Indeed, it seems imprecise to talk about Dean’s expressive, mannered acting in this way. Even a cursory look at the well-known “You’re tearing me apart!” scene in Rebel Without a Cause (0:11) reveals an actor with a surfeit of technique: in the space of thirty seconds, Dean contorts his face, strains his voice, twists his hands, swings his arms, grabs his tie, and clutches his coat like a security blanket, all in the service of communicating Jim Stark’s anguished adolescent turmoil. (Nicholas Ray cannily frames this so that Dean’s hands and arms keep leaving the shot, thus emphasizing Jim’s sense of himself as pushing wildly at a confining world.) Probably a better way to interpret “lack of technique” is to understand it as a disagreement regarding artistic process. There is no question that Dean performs in a scene such as “You’re tearing me apart!”, so what must have troubled Dean’s peers is the way Dean builds a performance, and, crucially, what counts and what does not count as part of a performance for Dean. When Kazan says that Dean had no technique, he indicates that what mattered to him about acting did not matter to Dean, and vice versa. Kazan relates a story about Dean purchasing an expensive camera and taking roll after roll of photographs of his own face with slightly different expressions. “He’d show me the goddamn contact sheets and ask which one I liked best,” Kazan grumbles. “I thought they were all the same picture.”3 Exactly: some aspects of Dean’s art lay outside Kazan’s definitions.
I want to look here at portions of the sequence immediately following “You’re tearing me apart!” in order to explore what counts for Dean as an actor. We know some of what Dean found irrelevant — historical or social research, details pertaining to costuming, makeup, and scenery, close adherence to a script — but I would like to be more concrete about what is present in his work. This is especially important in Dean’s case, because his key maneuver as an actor is to construct his performance in the open, so to speak, by conspicuously assembling its components on camera. As his contact sheets of near-identical self-portraits suggests, the time-and-place for Dean’s performances is always now, in the moment of its creation, and he resists any technique that obscures that fact.
The narrative arc of this approximately six-minute sequence (0:12-0:18) moves Jim from reflexively distrusting police officer Ray Fremick (played by Edward Platt) because he is an authority figure to confiding in him as an equal. Though Fremick may seem paternal, his position in the film as the adult most sympathetic to the teenagers grows from his ability to sidestep an inappropriately fatherly role. A governing principle of Rebel is that there is no substitute for a father: clearly Jim needs a father, but it must be his father (Frank, played by Jim Backus) who stands up for him, and Fremick recognizes that he cannot take Frank’s place. (Thus Plato’s attempt to mold Jim into a father-substitute ends in disaster, and Judy’s relationship with her father is dysfunctional because she wants something other than fathering from him. In this film’s world, fathers must be fathers, and if, as in Plato’s case, the father is permanently absent, there is no compensating for this loss.) This explains the force of what might otherwise seem an anticlimactic coda to the scene in Fremick’s office, when Frank abruptly offers Fremick some cigars. Given the way Rebel fetishizes the transfer of objects — not only Jim’s coat, but also Judy’s compact, Plato’s address book, and the ammunition from Plato’s gun — something significant must be at stake here. Is this a bribe? Not quite, but it is somehow a corrupting offer: if Fremick accepts the cigars, he accepts Frank as a peer, or perhaps a patron, and tacitly demotes Jim to a child. Dean tenses his body, pushes his hands into his pockets, and avoids looking at Platt. Only after Fremick passes the test by sternly refusing the cigars — and after Dean allows a thoughtfully pained expression to flicker across his face when his mother Carol (played by Ann Doran) coldly intervenes — does Dean turn to Platt with an expression of remarkable vulnerability. (Dean emphasizes this opening-up through a double-blink just before he turns.) As Fremick leads him away by the arm, Jim ruefully shakes his head, and they share a collegial smile at his domineering mother and his buffoonish, ineffectual father.
Six minutes earlier, Jim physically attacked Fremick, but at the close of the sequence they are of one mind; Fremick indeed sees right through Jim, and along the way he ratifies Jim’s view of his parents. As an actor, Dean must navigate Jim’s shift from hostility and self-pity to alliance and self-control; we can measure Jim’s development on these fronts by using the other characters as static points. So, for example, before the scene in Fremick’s office, Jim responds to his parents with the tormented cry “You’re tearing me apart!”; after forging his bond with Fremick, Jim is still hurting, but he has gained an equilibrium that permits him to be faintly amused as well. In keeping with the film’s compressed, symbolic time frame, Dean depicts in six minutes a process of maturation that might take years if not decades in reality. The handling of time in Rebel meshes with Dean’s here-and-now approach to performance, providing a framework that amplifies small physical choices into resonant abstractions, and powering what Geoff Andrew calls the “extraordinary dynamism of . . . Dean’s extremely tactile performance.”4
Dean’s physical inventiveness is exceptional. For instance, as he enters the office, Dean sticks out his left elbow so that Platt must bump against it as he passes; the transfer of momentum prompts Dean to rotate his torso like a turnstile and swivels him back toward the door, where he first makes contact with the peephole cover that he will, in turn, later spin wildly. Dean establishes his body as a sort of receiver and conveyor of kinetic energy in order to evoke the unchanneled hum of Jim’s impulses, and to demonstrate Jim’s extreme sensitivity both to internal and to external stimuli; he is a helpless tuning fork in a noisy, contradictory world. More challengingly, this strategy also complicates any distinctions we might draw between Jim’s reactive “performing” and Dean’s performing of Jim’s performing. When, after a reflective pause in which he seems to coil inward, Dean careens away from the door and back toward Platt with a clumsy punch, is his cartoonish and exaggerated movement poor choreography, or is it an evocation of Jim’s awkwardness? Once again, “acting” definitely happens here, but at what level(s)? Whose “kidding,” precisely, are we seeing through — Dean’s or Jim’s?
Or, consider the obverse of the clumsy punch, the moment soon following in which Dean quite visibly does strike the desk about ten times, with increasing vigor, causing his hands to redden. (Stories vary, but most agree that Dean did receive medical attention after filming this scene.) Since Dean’s physical work in the film is often melodramatic and larger-than-life, it may be startling or upsetting (as it seems to be to Fremick, and perhaps to Platt) when Dean obtrusively harms himself as he beats the desk. Here too we can ask whether really punching the desk is bad acting — on the grounds that it is not acting at all — or whether it represents Dean’s commitment to pursue his chosen technique to its logical endpoint. Are these punches — both clumsy and painfully real — moments that Dean “got right” without any direction, or are they moments that he could not get at all?
Our puzzling over whether Dean’s clumsy punch signifies poor or inspired technique (that is, bad acting or clever characterization) is in fact its meaning. We should recognize Dean’s intent behind posing the question: maintaining an ambiguity about the level of technique in play lies at the heart of Dean’s work in this film. That is, Dean thematizes “bad acting” by muddying the boundaries between bad acting on the technical level of film production and bad acting in the social milieu established by the film. Jim Stark is overwrought in both senses: as an artistic product in our world, and as an emotionally neglected teenager in Rebel‘s world. Fremick shows a noticeable impatience with Jim — replying to Jim’s plaintive confession that he doesn’t know why he acts as he does with a curt “Don’t give me that,” and, more warmly, encouraging Jim that somehow children do find ways to emerge from under the mistakes of poor parents — and in each case he is impatient because he cares less about Jim’s psychology than about Jim’s behavior. Like Kazan, Fremick simply wants the young man in front of him to act better, and for both Kazan and Fremick, being a good actor means doing a more convincing job of pretending that you are not acting. In other words, at least under Ray’s direction, James Dean acts badly because Jim Stark acts badly.
When Jim emerges from Fremick’s office, he studiously announces, “Mother, I’m sorry,” which satisfies Fremick not necessarily because it is true but because it is what Jim is supposed to say. Likewise, Jim mockingly reproves his grandmother (played by Virginia Brissac) for her transparent lie that he was always a lovely boy; now her acting is unconvincing (Brissac over-signals her character’s deceptiveness by popping her eyes wide in faux-innocence), and he cautions her with what is, when considered against the backdrop of Dean’s performance in this film, a grave threat: “You tell one more lie and you’re going to get turned to stone.” During the scene in the office, Fremick instructs Jim to suppress his sensitivity as a way of surviving his lamentable family; similarly, Kazan, if he could, would have taught Dean to act more and to be himself less. The brilliance of Dean’s work in Rebel springs from how he turns these pressures inside-out, capturing the flash between feeling and suppression, staging for his audience the toil and the material difficulty of acting from moment to moment.
- Kazan, Elia. Elia Kazan: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. 538. [↩]
- Holley, Val. James Dean: The Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 10-12, 248. [↩]
- Kazan, Elia. Elia Kazan: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. 537-8. [↩]
- Andrew, Geoff. The Films of Nicholas Ray. London: British Film Institute, 2004. 96. [↩]