A JAMES DEAN TRUE LIFE LESSON | DON’T ACT IT, OR SHOW IT– JUST DO IT

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James Dean– from the haircut and setting, I’d say it’s during the filming of Rebel Without a Cause.

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Dennis Hopper said that when he was around 18 or 19 years old,  he thought of himself as one of the best, our at least on his way to being one of the best, actors in the world.  That is, until he met James Dean. Watching Dean in action as they worked together in Rebel Without a Cause, Hopper witnessed Jimmy doing things so far over his head as an actor, that at the time he couldn’t even comprehend it.  He knew Dean knew something, had something, that he didn’t, and it made him special– set apart.

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 Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

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Hopper was so enthralled, that on the set while they were filming the “Chickie Run”scene, he grabbed Dean and threw him into one of the cars to corner him and said, “You gotta tell me what you’re doin’, because I don’t understand.  Tell me, should I go to New York and study at the Actor’s Studio?  Man, tell me what I should do.” Dean told him very simply, “Don’t go to New York and study. Don’t act.  OK?  Just, you know– do it.  Don’t act it, don’t show it– just do it.”

I love that story.  It’s like, don’t go through the motions like you’re doing something– actually do it.  How you live, move and breathe should be natural.  Speaking for myself– so many times in life, it’s like we’re so busy planning out our routines instead of encountering life naturally.  Not that all planning is bad, but we’re focused on the efficiency, convenience, routine all the time- and also how the world sees us.  What should I say?   What should I wear?   What will people think of me?  Blah, blah, blah.  And life becomes stale.  It becomes predictable.  It can become this sad little trap that ultimately is the end to all means. We stop anticipating or welcoming anything unplanned, different, or unexpected because we wouldn’t know what to do with it.  Where would I fit this into my neat little plan?

I wonder sometimes what I’m missing out on in life because I don’t want to be inconvenienced.  Because I don’t want to take my eyes off the hamster wheel under my feet and look up.  Stop planning and analyzing everything to death– just do it.

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James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

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James Dean in the improvised opening scene with the toy monkey in Rebel Without a Cause.

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James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause.

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James Dean surrounded by female fans on the set of Rebel Without a Cause.

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Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

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James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause

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Natalie Wood and James Dean with co-star (gang member) from Rebel Without a cause.

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James Dean in Lee denim jeans, Rebel Without a Cause.

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Natalie Wood and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

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James Dean and Natalie Wood in– Rebel Without a Cause.

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James Dean on the set of “Rebel Without a Cause”, was a well-known TriumphT5 Trophy rider, but pictured here he’s astride an old Austrian-made “Puch”.  These bikes were sold in the U.S. through Sears Roebuck back in the day.

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James Dean driving

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James Dean

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25 thoughts on “A JAMES DEAN TRUE LIFE LESSON | DON’T ACT IT, OR SHOW IT– JUST DO IT

  1. Anyone who watches James Dean can see that he is not “just doing it”. He is at all times a very self-aware actor. Just look at the pictures above! He was simply taking Dennis Hopper for a patsy because as long as he was asking the question it was obvious he would never get the answer. Of course, you could say that Dean was “just doing it” when he smashed himself up in that car crash finale.

    • Roger,

      “Look at the pictures above?”

      You miss the point, my friend. Being self-aware is a good thing. I’m talking about thinking and living in a rut to the point where it pre-determines every outcome because your programmed for one response. Like your cynicism that seems to have a hold on you.

      And I find the comment about the crash a tad insensitive.

      Cheers,

      JP

      • “Just do it” is a slogan for cretins. If you look at the pictures above you will see that he was not just doing it, he was doing it with attitude. Personal style such as this is something that must be worked and developed by an actor, a dancer, or artist in any other field. You get out of the rut by work, training, dedication. To think you can “just do it” is naive in the extreme. Of course self-awareness is good! Wake up JP!!!

      • Roger,

        I disagree, and I’ll tell you why.
        I have known so many people that are brilliant, analytical, prepared, trained people who never realize their true potential because they lack one thing– the ability to execute. They get passed up by mediocre talent because that person executes– they do it. A slogan for cretins? No, not in the proper context.

        You keep focusing on the posed studio pictures, I’m talking about a life attitude.

        James Dean’s life wasn’t perfect, no ones is. I’m talking about the moment you realize the only thing holding you back in life is you, and you just need to realize and “just do” whatever “it” is that will make you whole.

        Thanks for the comments, now let’s get off this.

        JP

      • What we are speaking of here is the never ending carnal battle.

        Flow Vs. Structure.

        Too much structure chokes off access to the Genius. Too much flow and there is nothing firm to build on.

        I believe that we tend too far towards structure these days. Just think of how easily you flowed along in your college years. Leave room in your life for new possibilities and they will come. How many times have you met someone who would make a great friend, but you did not allow them in to your life because you are no longer in the habit of making new friends? Something to ponder.

  2. Great post, this movie is thrilling.
    And his personality is something (I think) hard to find in Hollywood now.

  3. Thanks for the swift kick in the rear. Always great insight and motivation. “Hey try to pick up that pencil…just do it”. Thx man.

  4. I think you could say the same thing of not only how he lived or acted, but how he looked. He just had that classic look. He just did it, and almost anything he slipped into just looked good. If there was one guy I had to dress like for the rest of my life, it would be Dean.

  5. Clothes-wise (in addition to beimg a fine actor) Dean definitely had it going. So not to take anything away from Dean, but Steve McQueen, that man could dress. Many years ago, seeing “Bullitt” for the first time, the black turtleneck, desert boot, trenchcoat over tweed blazer look was my outfit for a night out. All I was lacking was a shoulder holster and a difficult relationship with a woman. That came later (the relationship, not the shoulder holster).

  6. I lack the ability to execute. I often feel as if i am stuck in this rut in the desert and don’t know which road to go next-bcuz i’m scared to “just do it” I need a good hard kick in the arse or somebody to take me under their wings and lead me in the right direction-HA! Great post JP! I love James Dean *sigh*

    • We all get stuck in ruts from time to time. Once you’ve recognized it, you just need to be intentional about getting out. Small changes can make a big diff.

      You’re already halfway outta that rut!

      JP

  7. “I wonder sometimes what I’m missing out on in life because I don’t want to be inconvenienced. Because I don’t want to take my eyes off the hamster wheel under my feet and look up.”

    I’ve been doing this for years. It’s a slow suicide. And like all slow suicides, it’s very easy to do.

    “Stop planning and analyzing everything to death– just do it.”

    Thinking of having this tattooed on the insides of my eyelids. GREAT post, and Dean is the perfect analogy. I had largely ignored him for years, because hype is a turn-off. I don’t want to love the same guy everyone else loves. I saw Rebel Without a Cause when I was too young to care, and it didn’t sink in. T

    Then I watched Giant last year.

    …need I say more?

    • Brittany,

      You’re right, it can be a slow suicide. I can’t even begin to tell you all the messes I’ve been in… the important thing is to learn and move on.

      So, I was lucky enough to be in London a few years ago at the Covent Garden Hotel, which has a screening room downstairs. They show movies for guests on Saturday nights, and what were they showing when I was there that week? Rebel Without a Cause. I’d already seen it countless times, but sitting there watching it on the big screen– I was transported to another time, place, reality. It was amazing.

      Best,

      JP

  8. JP is arguing against “paralysis by analysis,” and that’s the right idea: stop thinking so much, get off your duff, and do what needs to be done!

    Gotta go–I have stuff to do :-)

  9. JP,

    I think that another way of putting what you are saying about James Dean is that he was able to be in the moment and be present to what was coming up inside of him and put it out there i.e. do it. I think this is very evident in his scenes with Jim Bachus in Rebel Without A Cause and in his portrayal of Cal in East of Eden. He expresses the vulnerability, the inarticulateness, the confusion, the emotional pain of Cal in relation to his father and in his confrontation of his mother. I always weep when I see James Dean in East of Eden because his performance is so moving.

  10. words to live by, especially for a college student like myself standing on the precipice of real life, furiously planning instead of actually doing something. a duly noted bit of advice, indeed.

  11. I can remember watching Rebel Without A Cause for the first time on T.V. It was the late seventies I was about 12 years old.
    That opening scene had me hooked despite my Mothers derogatory comments about Dean. I’d never heard of him before but I watched it all the same, she went to bed.
    It had an effect, it must have. I’m 44 this year and still wear those clothes…

  12. I just have to make one more point here. The greatest actors are the ones you don’t see acting. That’s why James Dean and Steve McQueen are remembered far more than the supposedly greatest actors of their generation. When Dean played a teenage rebel, you believed that the way his character acted was the way Dean himself would behave in real life in a similar situation. When Steve McQueen glared at Ben Johnson in “The Getaway” you believed that that’s the way McQueen would really act if he found out his wife was cheating on him. (And if you’ve read any McQueen biographies……) Their naturalism, at its best, is far more effective than the showy acting of a guy like Robert Downey Jr., who evidently graduated with honors from the Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod Academy of Theatre Art.

  13. Pingback: TSY STYLE HALL OF FAME | JAMES DEAN CULTURAL GIANT OF THE REBEL SET « The Selvedge Yard

  14. hopper talks about DEAN instructed him IF ur supposed 2 b in a room alone THAts SILLY, u have 2 accept the camera 2b able 2 ignore it. BRANDO when he picks up the glove, eva marie said she almost screwed the pouch, when she dropped it, brando picked it UP & the rest is history. true romance, hopper picked up the glove in spite of scripted perfection. dean was cool doing NOthing same as McQueen. paul newman learned 2 fill up the scene, glenn close said u reveal ur character in private moments onSCREEN. mass is mostly empty, it’s the doing noTHING being watched, when REALLY nobody is where the viEwer IS.. POV

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