Sixty years ago today, James Dean was killed driving his Porsche 950 Spyder, a car he’d nicknamed “Little Bastard,” on his way to a car race in Salinas, California. Dean had a major cultural impact after only three significant film roles. But as significant as his performances in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden are, his final work — in the sprawling, three-hour epic Giant — started to show an even deeper potential. Set in West Texas, the film was released more than a year after his death, and his performance as supporting character Jett Rink was so captivating, he shared a Best Actor nomination with co-star Rock Hudson.
Just as Dean would never know of this accolade, the world would never know what his career would have become, as he created a memorable performance with comparably little screen time. It was a role Dean was so desperate for, he agreed to do it for a reduced salary. Director George Stevens had considered Alan Ladd and Montgomery Clift for the role before hiring Dean, who was eager to avoid further typecasting, having played rebellious teenage loners in what would be his only other film credits. These elevated him to the status of teen icon. Dean, however, was ready to prove himself as an actor.
The studio had hired Texas-born actor Bob Hinkle to work with Hudson as a dialogue coach, but Dean approached Hinkle early on, offering to pay him out of pocket to help him become the character of Jett Rink. Hinkle told him at the beginning that if he was “going to be a Texan, the best way is to be a Texan all day long. Get up in the morning, put on your hat, put on your boots. Dress like a Texan, eat the food Texans eat.” Dean replied, “That’s what I want to do.”
Once Hinkle began teaching him how to be a Texan, including everything from his accent to his lassoing skills, Dean began to immerse himself in the character. It was an acting trait learned from his mentor, Lee Strasberg, considered to be the father of Method acting in the U.S.
Stevens, a much more traditional director, wasn’t sympathetic with Dean’s approach. After being called to set three days and not being used, Dean would skip the fourth, causing a delay in production. Dean argued the emotional toll he went through when preparing for his scenes was hard on him, which prompted Stevens to be more accommodating of his shooting schedule.
Their coming to terms would pay off, and scenes like the one above — in which he’s seen with his lasso and stumbling over his words while hunched over in a chair — make apparent how Dean’s approach to performing differed from the rest of the cast. It was with this scene that Stevens realized that Dean was “like a magnet. You watch him: Even when he’s not doing anything, you watch him and not the others.” He would go so far as to alter his directing style, instructing the crew to “stay on him, keep the camera rolling,” after takes, further accommodating Dean’s approach.
As the film’s bankable star, Hudson disliked Dean’s Method style, a sharp contrast to his more conventional technique. Hinkle, who worked with Hudson, as well as Dean on set, said their animosity was based on jealousy — each having something the other wanted. Hudson had the respect (and the better dialogue in the film), and Dean had the the media’s attention during his meteoric rise.
Biographer and journalist Ryan Connolly had written that “old Hollywood didn’t like him much. You see, the main actors of that time were straight, wooden men who spoke very clearly.” More than 25 years later, Hudson would reflect on his working with Dean, saying that “he had his own absolute style, he could not alter that style, you had to go along with him. You could not get him to go along with you.”
Despite those tensions, Elizabeth Taylor, being only a year younger than Dean, developed a friendship with Dean on set. She described him as very shy, and would reminisce that the two would stay up talking “until three in the morning,” only to have him ignore her completely when they’d report to set early the next morning. Only later did she realize that he’d react that way because “he’d revealed too much of himself” when telling her about his his unhappy childhood, a contrast to his Method approach on screen, where he’d frequently wear his emotions on his sleeve.
A three-plus hour film that covers more than 30 years in the lives of its characters, Giant gave Dean a chance to throw himself into a role in a way he hadn’t been able to previously. David Dalton, author of James Dean: Mutant King, wrote that he was “the most effective as the middle-aged Jett Rink in his shades and pencil-thin mustache.” While Hudson and Taylor’s aging was portrayed cosmetically, wearing blue and gray wigs and drawn-on wrinkles, Dean continued to transform himself into his aging character, going from stoic cowhand to mumbling, pathetic millionaire over the course of the film, even shaving in his receding hairline for effect.
In his final scene, a warped, drunken Jett rambles through a speech, and Dean delivered the lines so convincingly incoherent that, after his death, they had to be overdubbed by actor Nick Adams for clarity. As a result, the last words that Dean appears to say on film aren’t even his own.
Upon Giant‘s release, The New York Times called Dean the one “who makes the malignant role of the surly ranch hand who becomes an oil baron the most tangy and corrosive in the film.” Variety, knowing that Dean’s death would be a huge draw, assured readers that “the film only proves what a promising talent has been lost,” calling his portrayal “a real sock performance.”
All these years later, with only a few hours of film to his credit, Dean is still celebrated as much as an icon as an actor, despite Hollywood heavyweights, and fellow Method devotees like Robert De Niro crediting him as an influence. Giant might not be the first film that comes to mind when people refer to James Dean, but he’s the first thing that comes to mind when anyone mentions Giant, a film that gave a brief glimpse into his untapped ability.