James Dean vs. Marlon Brando in a Hollywood Heartthrob duel makes for the most entertaining conversational grudge fight. Which do you favour? In L szl Benedek’s “The Wild One,” when he portrays a humming, human motorcycle engine, pumped up on erotic, rebellious energy and living to challenge norms and cast aside 1950s squareness, what can be more honest than Brando’s brutal, unvarnished honesty? Or Dean in Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” a sensitive, mature soul who may occasionally let pride get the better of him but who would be content to build his own joyful, stargazing queer polycule with a couple of classmates. Dean is a delicate, mature soul who may be a little cuckoo.
When queerness was infamously suppressed and demonised, each of the actors was also outspoken about their sexual orientation. Recall when Liberace and Rock Hudson were considered to be “women men”? The quotation is frequently credited to Dean “I’m not a homosexual, no. However, I’m not living with one hand tied behind my back either.” While Brando once told Gary Carey, a biographer “Because it has become so popular, homosexuality no longer makes headlines. I’ve had homosexual encounters, too, like a lot of males, and I’m not ashamed of it.” King, bi, slay.
Additionally, the Stanislavski Method of acting, which was becoming popular in Hollywood in the 1950s, was practised by both Dean and Brando. In order to give audiences a deeper sense of emotional reality, the Method required actors to attempt to actually evoke real emotions during their performances, frequently derived from their own potentially similar life experiences. It is noteworthy that Konstantin Stanislavski never asked actors to stay in character when off the stage. The Method is not that.
Brando vs. Dean
It’s odd that Brando disliked Dean’s rise to stardom given their many similarities. According to Marlon Brando’s 2008 autobiography “Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando” by Stefan Kanfer, Dean was, in a sense, stealing Brando’s act.
Brando gained notoriety in Hollywood quickly. A one-two-three-four-five punch of “A Streetcar Names Desire,” “Viva Zapata,” “Julius Caesar,” “The Wild One,” and “On the Waterfront” all much guaranteed that Brando would be remembered for the rest of the century. His debut movie, Fred Zinneman’s “The Men,” is hardly mentioned. Brando redefined sex appeal in the public perception and belonged to a new generation of actors. He was an ardent, gifted young man who was coveted by men and women everywhere. Local newspapers did a good job of covering his rise, which probably didn’t help that Brando often read them. His ego immediately grew large, and when he was in public, he adopted a kingly demeanour. Brando is cited as ranting in Kanfer’s book:
“Acting, not prostitution, is the oldest profession in the world. Even apes act. If you want to invite trouble from one, lock your eyes on his and stare. It’s enough of an assault to make the animal rise, pound his chest and feign a charge; he is acting, hoping that his gesture will make you avert your eyes.”
Things like that. In his own eyes, he was the cock of the walk.
Then, in 1954, a few publications started detailing an astounding new talent that was emerging that they dubbed “The New Brando.” As Kanfer noted, this disturbed the legendary Brando quite a little. James Dean was The New Brando.
Be yourself, not me
In 1951, Dean started his acting career on television, where he was very active. Since Dean nearly overnight rose to the top of Hollywood’s heap after the release of “East of Eden” in 1955, Brando couldn’t take it. In essence, Brando saw a “beautiful boy” version of himself in Dean. The same love of t-shirts and “outsider” mentality. The same sexuality, without apology. Dean also gained a reputation for taking off his jacket before entering a gathering, which was a classic Brando manoeuvre. Dean’s bubblegum “teen idol” appearance, with his square jaw and immaculate hair, also didn’t appeal to Brando. He wasn’t afraid to express this to Dean directly.
According to Kanfer, Brando once approached Dean at a party they were both attending and gave him some unkind advise. Jimmy, you have to be who you are, not who I am, Brando reportedly remarked.
After only three big parts in films, Dean sadly perished in an automobile accident in 1955, cementing his fame. Because of his untimely passing, a legend about Dean quickly developed. A wonderful talent that was lost when young, etc. Dean received honours from numerous award organisations for his limited lifetime accomplishments. Brando observed, undoubtedly with some ambivalence.
In contrast, Brando would live to be 80 years old and would be nominated for numerous prestigious awards, some of which he would decline. Brando is famous for declining an Oscar for his performance in “The Godfather” as a way to protest Hollywood’s long history of mistreating Native Americans in films.
Although Dean and Brando were once considered rivals, they both went on to become legendary in their own right.