50 Years After James Dean's Death, Hollywood Ponders Whether He Was Actually Any Good

Johnny Depp, Nicolas Cage, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, other heavyweights weigh in.

Colin Farrell has had to live with a label. So has Russell Crowe and, before him, Johnny Depp and Sean Penn. It could reasonably be argued that the pressures of the label killed the box-office potential of Mickey Rourke and James Franco and, more dramatically, cost River Phoenix far more than his career. Year after year, hot young actors whose onscreen angst is equaled only by the off-camera demons which keep them so persuasively human are baptized with the merciless label of "The Next James Dean" -- Hollywood shorthand that can either catapult an actor to greatness or bequeath on him a level of expectation he may never overcome.

September 30 marks the 50th anniversary of the storied afternoon when a reckless, speeding Dean slammed his Porsche 550 Spyder into another car on a California highway, killing him at age 24. Even if you haven't seen the three classic films he was able to make before his death --1955's "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause," followed by 1956's "Giant" -- the icon is inescapable: the eternally embittered teenager in the red jacket and white T-shirt, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

But is there a point when a legend becomes more famous for being, well, legendary, than for actually being a good actor? Was James Dean as skilled at his craft as so many think he was, or is he so beloved simply because he, to this day, embodies the notion of "cool"?

Johnny Depp on James Dean's ability.

Nicolas Cage on how Dean inspired him to act.

John Travolta on why Dean was great.

Al Pacino remembers Dean.

James Dean: A look back at the actor's brief career.

"Yeah, that's a true story," Nicolas Cage replied when asked about the rumor that it was during a viewing of "East of Eden" that he decided he wanted to act. "I saw the scene where James Dean goes to bring the money on the birthday, and his father says to him it's not good enough, and he has the breakdown. That was so painful to watch, and it was so real to me, that I knew that acting was what I wanted to do. It affected me more than any song or painting or TV show."

"Jimmy had that genius; that mysterious certain something," Harvey Keitel agreed. "When you watched him play, you wanted to learn how to play that way ... he was an inspiration to me to play honestly, to play truthfully, to play deeply."

"There are moments -- behavior -- in 'East of Eden' that are pure magic," Johnny Depp marveled. " 'Giant' is pure magic; 'Rebel' is a bit dated and is sort of a strange vision of the 1950s, but his work in that was amazing."

To those three Oscar-nominated actors, and many more interviewed for this story, Dean's work continues to live on DVD, ready to similarly inspire future generations of actors simply willing to push "play." To certain other heavyweight actors, however, the Dean legend has outgrown the reality that the man himself was an over-the-top, scene-hogging troublemaker who happened to go three-for-three in picking scripts.

"I think his legend is a desperate attempt for the people who loved him to try to understand what in the hell he was saying," insisted Shirley MacLaine, the Oscar winner and six-time nominee who insists that she and many other actors of Dean's generation were unimpressed by his theatrics. "He was an expert mumbler. So I think people still love him because he got away with obscuring clarity with English. I don't like him."

"The only thing I know about James Dean, the way I translate James Dean, is that he's an actor who changed how naturalistic acting was done in this country," said Delroy Lindo, shaking his head from side to side when asked if he watches any Dean movies for inspiration. "That's really all I know about him, and I know that, as a result of that, he influenced -- along with Marlon Brando -- a whole generation of actors. How that influence translates to today's actors, I don't know."

"Oh, boy," Depp responded when told of such sentiments. "I think if a lot of actors think he's overrated, they have to go back and look at some of the stuff he did."

"I was a kid when Dean came out," Al Pacino said. "Dean was the inspiration. Even the red jacket he wore in 'Rebel Without a Cause,' you saw that red jacket popping up all over the place. He really reached people in a way; it was kind of a phenomenon when you think of it. I wonder what it would be like today, that kind of a person ... he made that connection with his audience. And I remember at that time my mother loved him. He reached everybody."

Such remembrances, although heartfelt, can make modern audiences wonder: Was it Dean's skills that older actors truly recall, or the Princess Diana-like tragedy that touched their lives?

"I was a little kid, 10 or 12," Christopher Walken remembered of the day the world was rocked by Dean's passing. "I remember exactly ... transistor radios had just happened. When transistor radios happened, that was huge. And everybody had this little thing. And I was on a bus -- I had been to the skating rink in Flushing [Queens, New York], near where I lived. And we were on the bus, and some kid had a transistor radio and it came over the radio. When 'Giant' came out, he was already gone. Yeah, that was a very big deal."

Nevertheless, MacLaine said that she's glad she never met the man whose first three movies came out in the same two years as hers did. "I would have slapped him if I had met him," she barked. "Speak up, speak up -- talk, enunciate."

"A remarkable actor," allowed a cautious Keanu Reeves, before adding: "for his time."

Reeves, who stepped into the Dean persona for Paula Abdul's "Rush, Rush" music video, is one of the many Hollywood talents who sees the man as a precursor to the better actors who followed, rather than a Babe Ruth of acting forever eclipsing the actors who attempt to equal his work.

Still, the "Matrix" star did volunteer that Dean was "in that time in cinema -- one of the most emotionally vulnerable, brave and original performers that I think we've seen."

"James Dean was an actor, but he had an amazing legacy in that he became famous for never really growing up," Cage conceded. "He's personified, immortalized as an adolescent character in film, which is fascinating to me. He didn't go into the other areas because he wasn't with us long enough."

"I don't think he was that great," Oscar winner and six-time nominee Robert Duvall growled. "He was good, but there was Brando, and there was [founding member] Steven Hill in the Actor's Studio, those were the two guys. James Dean came in third."

Duvall's comments were typical of many, in fact, who feel that Dean was merely a rip-off of other, superior actors who also helped to transform acting during that period.

"He and Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift -- the three of them -- represented a new age in acting," John Travolta said. "Acting entered a kind of realism [in the mid-'50s] that was exploring depth of emotion for males, and a reality that was more accurate."

"It was clear to me that he was doing Brando," Cage admitted. "I don't think [Dean] made any motions not to be honest about that. Brando was his idol."

"Yeah, that's right; they were together," added a passionate Pacino. "Someone put it very distinctly once to me when they thought Brando was the force, in a way, and the genius, and James Dean was kind of a sonnet, you know? And to describe Jimmy Dean as a sonnet -- I feel it's really accurate."

If this is the case, then why is it Dean and not Brando that gets to place his fingerprints all over the triumphant performances and thrilling flameouts of actors unfortunate enough to be branded the Next Big Thing? Why is it Dean's face that is plastered all over T-shirts and knick-knacks on Hollywood Boulevard, still having roads and songs and babies named in his honor a half-century after he stopped acting?

Perhaps it's because Brando was unlucky enough to live for 80 years, allowing the limitations of humanity to attach themselves to him via everything from celebrity scandals to "South Park" jokes to misfire films like "The Island of Dr. Moreau."

"Dean was talented, obviously," Duvall concluded, perhaps finally getting to the between-the-lines truth of it all. "But he died at a good time."

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