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Tony Curtis vs. James Dean

Tony Curtis, who died around midnight at age 85, and James Dean, who died 55 years ago today at age 24, were opposite yet complementary figures.

Curtis, a product of the studio star-making system, was groomed to be a matinee idol. (That's him in his cover-boy days, left.) But he became a gifted and versatile if erratic actor. He acted in scores of movies and costarred in a half-dozen great or very good ones: "Some Like it Hot," "The Sweet Smell of Success," "The Defiant Ones," "Spartacus," "Trapeze" and "The Vikings." You could sense his avidity for performing even under a ton of makeup in "The List of Adrian Messenger." Before his star waned he took on tough challenges like the title role in "The Boston Strangler."

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Curtis' career had a longevity and breadth that inevitably turn up surprises for movie-lovers. You can see him as a cavalryman in the classic 1950 Jimmy Stewart Western "Winchester '73" (under the name Anthony Curtis). It's fun to think that just nine years after his small part in that film, he was pulling off, with Jack Lemmon, one of the funniest drag acts of all time in "Some Like It Hot." Curtis' contributions to film turn up in many contexts. Actor's actor Geoffrey Rush once told me that the challenge for any costume picture was "the 'Spartacus Syndrome': acting with enough conviction so that you can believe Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis belong in ancient Rome."

James Dean's career, by contrast, had focus and intensity. He came into his own around the same time that Curtis hit his stride. But from the start he was known as an ambitious and individualistic actor. Dean made just three movies. But each helped him create original and enduring images of rebellion. They made him a lasting symbol of youthful, misfit insurgence.

"Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse." The postwar hipster slogan that director Nicholas Ray popularized in his 1949 picture, "Knock On Any Door," applied with startling directness to Dean, who played the title role in Ray's 1955 "Rebel Without a Cause," the epochal misunderstood-youth movie. Dean died when his Porsche 550 Spyder crashed into a Ford. He became the first pop celebrity to be called "forever young." Warner Bros. released "Rebel Without a Cause," his second film, a month after his death, and "Giant," his third and last film, a year later.

He made his debut in Elia Kazan's "East of Eden" earlier in '55, playing a supposed bad seed with a huge core of feeling. "The moment Dean appeared on the screen, they went crazy," Kazan recalled. "I realized, that even though the picture was set during World War I, Jimmy had caught something very precise about that very moment in the Eisenhower era. It was the way kids felt toward their fathers at that time."

I think Dean made a quantum leap in George Stevens' "Giant," as Jett Rink, the disreputable Texas ranch hand turned fabulous oil tycoon, A lot of Dean's successors have been adept at "crazy, mixed-up kids," but few would have been able to make Dean's transition in that movie from embattled juvenile to grizzled, wasted old man.

Both Curtis' zesty showmanship and Dean's ability to capture the Zeitgeist have become ever-more-rare in today's corporate movie world. Who in today's films can range the way Curtis did from farce to social melodrama to action epics? And who has summed up a complex contemporary attitude as keenly as Dean did the youthful alienation of the 1950s?

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