James Dean, born in 1931 in Indiana, found his calling as an actor early, while appearing in stage productions during his one semester at UCLA. He began making the Hollywood rounds in 1951, playing bit parts in television shows and movies (including Samuel Fuller's FIXED BAYONETS and Douglas Sirk's HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL?).
By 1955, Dean was due to become a star and his handsome, brooding charm was ideal for the new kind of juvenile lead that was needed for the fictional and stage properties being optioned for the screen at the time. Marlon Brando had set the pace, with his great, wound-up style of method acting, but at 30 he was too old, and, after his performance in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, too sexually threatening, to play most of these roles. It was simply Dean's time and place and he was destined to become identified with the era like no other male performer.
Here, in a screen test for EAST OF EDEN we can see both Dean's "baby Brando" style and his star power, much of which comes from his tangled, confused self-awareness and his undeniable suitability as a first class camera subject.
In a way Dean was America during the post war boom, grown up fast in a home with two cars and plenty of cold milk in the refrigerator, wanting nothing but empty and striving in the way of young people - and young societies. He gave us all this not with words but with hunching posture and tortured upturned glances that, thanks to the fine directors he worked with, and his own instincts, did not became a caricature.
Knowing him as we know him now, as a symbol of lost promise, how can we imagine him past his 25th birthday? What parts could he have played? Would he have floundered, as did Brando, in teahouses of August moons? And would he have recovered with a Brando-like second act, and had his own last tangos? Would he have gone the way of Paul Newman, and become a dependable but rarely scintillating lead? It's not hard imagining Dean as COOL HAND LUKE or Fast Eddie Felsen. Would he have dropped out altogether or become a director? We can never know.