In September 1955 a fatal car crash put an end to the promising acting career of twenty-four year old James Dean. Dean played roles in many classic movies alongside stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Harris, Natalie Wood and Rock Hudson. James Dean's convincing portrayals of characters plagued with conflicting emotions touched many filmgoers and earned him generations of fans.
In February 1931, the life of James Byron Dean began in the city of Marion, Indiana. He was the only child of Mildred and Winton Dean. When James turned five the family moved to California in pursuit of a job opportunity for Winton, a dental technician. A few years later when James' mother died of cancer, he was sent to live with an Uncle and Aunt who lived on a farm close to Fairmount, Indiana. James Dean spent the rest of his childhood on that farm in Fairmount. Throughout his school years he excelled in athletics and drama. He was also a member of the high school band. After graduating high school, Dean spent a brief time studying drama in college before making his way to New York to try his acting skills on the stage.
The early 1950s found James Dean searching for an opening into the professional acting world. The struggling actor took minor roles in a few movies and some television work. However, the first significant event in the acting career of James Dean happened in 1954 when he landed a role in a play running on Broadway entitled, The Immoralist. Dean's role in the play captured the appreciation of the critics and the eye of filmmaker Elia Kazan. Kazan was on the look out for an actor to play the part of Cal Trask in his upcoming movie, East of Eden. This would be James Dean's introduction to Hollywood.
James Dean was praised by critics for his role in East of Eden, the movie based on the popular John Steinbeck novel. Dean's portrayal of Cal, the confused young man on a desperate mission to please his father, was hauntingly convincing. The venerable actor Raymond Massey played Cal's father and Julie Harris starred as the love interest, Abra. James Dean was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actor category for his work in East of Eden but did not win. However, he did garner a Golden Globe award for his role in the movie.
Dean's role as teenager Jim Stark in the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause is probably his most popular work. Jim Stark is a troubled young person dealing with parents who don't understand him as he searches for meaning in what he considers a world of hypocrisy. Famous actress Natalie Wood plays his equally troubled girlfriend. In this film, James Dean achingly captures the feelings and emotions of a teenager trying to find his place in the world. The true to life portrayal of a teenager delivered by James Dean has drawn empathy from teenage movie goers for decades.
The movie Giant based on Edna Ferber's novel stars Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson. Dean plays the role of Jett Rink the poor, outcast ranch worker who strikes it rich in oil. The character of Jett Rink presented Dean with the acting challenge of portraying a character that aged twenty-five years in the story. His acting efforts proved successful as he earned an Academy Award nomination for best actor in Giant. Though he didn't win the award, the recognition is further proof of his acting talents.
James Dean's impersonation of the troubled, conflicted personality seen in his movie roles was just one of the things that drew fans to him. His handsome physical appearance and the wild activities in his personal life were also elements that made him an intriguing figure. For instance, he had a love of racing cars. This dangerous activity that he adored proved to be deadly in the end. There was also an air of mystery around James Dean. He was reportedly dating an Italian actress named Pier Angeli. Dean was said to be very serious about this young woman. However, their relationship was put to an abrupt halt when her disapproving mother intervened. The failed love affair was just another piece of James Dean's life that made people want to know more about him.
There has been speculation for quite awhile that James Dean was interested in men as well as women. Despite the fact that he has been connected with women in Hollywood including Pier Angeli, these rumors still persist. Several decades after his death it is not known for sure whether he truly had a romantic interest in men or whether the story was made up to add another element of mystery to his image.
James Dean will be remembered as a talented actor with an intriguing personality who never had the chance to see what great heights he could rise to in the acting world.
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