By Amanda Hodges

‘He takes to movies like it was his medium. Like he owned it.’ This was the prescient verdict of film director Elia Kazan on young actor James Dean who Kazan was then considering for the role of Cal Trask in his version of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Ironically this would be the only one of his three films that Dean would live to see in his lifetime as he was killed in a car crash on 30 September 1955 just days before Rebel Without A Cause -which introduced the immortal image of Dean’s Jimmy Stark-as the archetypal American teenager- was due to open and shortly after Giant had finished filming.

Now the subject of a short retrospective season at the BFI Southbank where each of of Dean’s major films are being screened in digitally restored versions, audiences again have the opportunity to enjoy James Dean at his best. In the fifty-odd years since his early demise Dean has become the epitome of screen cool, his fame eclipsing even the simple medium of film and becoming emblematic of alienated youth everywhere but, as each of his films emphasise so clearly in today’s digital versions, it’s the combination of characteristics that he brings to each of his defining roles that makes them so eminently watchable.

As Kazan noted – with probably a fair degree of perspicacity- to author John Steinbeck at the time of East of Eden’s casting, ‘He is very interesting, has balls and eccentricity and a ‘real problem’ somewhere in his guts.’ It’s a fair description but much of Dean’s appeal comes from his complex personality and it’s this which makes him such a magnetic screen presence.

Picture Dean in East of Eden , the film which introduced him to the world as the poignant Cal, eager and bewildered, adorable and alienated. Then there’s Jim Stark of Nicholas Ray’s mould-breaking Rebel, a kid trying to do the right thing but emmeshed in a world where his own family are so disappointing he’s keen to make up his own substitute version. Rebel embodied on screen the cultural changes taking place in the Fifties and cemented Dean’s reputation forever as the icon of rebellious youth. And then finally there’s George Stevens’ epic (or overblown as some may find it, I’ll go with the former epithet) Giant in which Dean was beginning to move away from his ‘delinquent’ teenage roles in favour of more meaty roles, namely here the part of surly farmhand Jett Rink who, lonely and misunderstood, uses revenge as his weapon of choice.

Next year sees the exciting release of Anton Corbijn’s Dean biopic starring Dane DeHaan, which will examine Dean’s fruitful friendship with Dennis Stock, the photographer responsible for creating many of the iconic images of the actor. In the meantime look no further than the pure cinematic pleasure to be derived from seeing these three restored films which pay tribute to the phenomenal talent of an outstanding actor. ‘Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today’, Dean famously said and it’s this very intensity which makes him such an enduring screen legend.


The James Dean season runs at the BFI Southbank until May 1

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