The One Scene Every Actor Must See

James Dean. With only three films to his name and a sudden shocking death at 24, the handsome, sensitive young actor became so iconic that his image is visual shorthand for Hollywood. Because he's such a legend it's difficult to view Dean's work objectively. But, if you're able to put aside all preconceptions and simply watch James Dean in East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, it quickly becomes clear that yes, the kid was really that damn good. The fascinating complexity he brings to his roles along with his willingness to make odd, even risky choices sets him apart. His style and look have been endlessly copied but never with much success. Modern day actors who have been influenced by Dean too often miss the mark and end up creating characters who are sulky and puerile rather than finely drawn. 

Dean got his big break when Elia Kazan cast him as Cal Trask, the conflicted young man desperately trying to gain his father's love in East of Eden. Dean stunned audiences with the power of his performance and his sheer magnetism. He then took his place in the pantheon of Hollywood Stardom by playing Jim Stark, the angst-ridden teen, in Rebel Without A Cause. With his final role as the envious ranch hand, Jett Rink, in Giant, Dean stole the film from Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson  and proved his tremendous versatility as well.

But Dean was gone before Giant was even released and became the quintessential personification of the old phrase: "The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long". He was the first actor nominated for a posthumous Academy Award - nominated not just once but twice- for Best Actor in both East of Eden and Giant

Sometimes Dean's emotional, unpredictable Method acting confounded his more conventional co-stars. This worked to great effect in scenes with Dean and the stage-trained Raymond Massey who plays his father in East of Eden. Their clash of styles underscores their characters' inability to connect -  which is the emotional thread that moves the story. Other times, Dean's co-stars just seem stiff in comparison to his realism and truth.  

When Dean is in the company of a talent that matches his own the effect is riveting.That's the case when he's on screen with Jo Van Fleet who plays his hard-bitten, fiercely independent mother, Kate, in East of Eden. Van Fleet brings a nuanced intensity to the role that perfectly complements Dean's stellar performance. 

Before she was cast as Kate, Van Fleet was an acclaimed stage actor but, like Dean, East of Eden was her big break into film. Right off the bat she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Van Fleet became known for playing strong characters who were usually older than she really was. Ironically, as she actually aged she was cast in fewer roles. When her career languished she became frustrated and somewhat bitter. Hollywood is capricious and often talent counts for far less than it should. 

In this scene from East of Eden, Cal, who has never spoken to his mother, comes to the brothel she runs to borrow money so he can invest it and give the earnings to his father.

Both great actors create their characters from a masterful combination of words, rhythm and gesture. Watch the way they use their hands, eyes and posture to bring Cal and Kate to life. it's thrilling to watch even with the sound off. Their level of skill, and the layered interplay of subtext and expressed emotion makes this, in my opinion, the one scene that every actor who is serious about their craft must see. 

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