The Original Rebel Giant, Lost to the East of Eden


“This young actor, who is here doing his first big-screen stint, is a mass of histrionic gingerbread. He scuffs his feet, he whirls, he pouts, he sputters, he leans against walls, he rolls his eyes, he swallows his words, he ambles slack-kneed . . . ” Suffice it to say that The New York Times had not yet jumped onto the James Dean bandwagon when Bosley Crowther filed his review of East of Eden in 1955, just six months before the 24-year-old’s death in a car crash (50 years ago this September). The gingerbread man: quick and spry as in the children’s tale, impish, prone to crumble, good enough to eat. Dean reeked of sex but only in stills; the erotic heat dissipates as soon as the pose is broken. In moving pictures, Dean could get tangled and tripped up in his own prolix kinesis, intensifying the boyish self-pity already inscribed in Cal Trask (East of Eden), Jim Stark (Rebel Without a Cause), and Jett Rink (Giant) and scrambling any transmission to his co-stars. By the turgid Giant he’s even shrugging off communication as we know it, disgorging an often unintelligible gin-and-novocaine mumble. John Cassavetes called the Method “organized introversion,” yet this is precisely why Dean is so affecting in Rebel, which nails the group-identified narcissism, self-absorbed dreamy longueurs, and thrashing emotions of adolescence in its propulsive rhythms and in Dean’s thrillingly unpredictable reelings as the perpetual new kid in town. (There’s virtually no buildup to “You’re tearing me apart!”—it explodes only a few minutes in.) Longing for the lost or withholding parent figure stalls Dean’s characters in their youth, and his movie career, too, is frozen in its childhood. In East of Eden, Dean’s operatic neediness drives sweetheart Julie Harris to maternal impatience: “Are you going to cry for the rest of your life?” she asks. But of course, he didn’t.