James Dean: The People’s Choice

by Katherine Gould, Associate Curator of Cultural History

Tonight is the kick-off to awards show season with the broadcast of the 39th People’s Choice Awards. Soon to follow are the Critics Choice Movie Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, the Producers Guild of America Awards, the Directors Guild of America Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Writers Guild of America Awards, the Film Independent Spirit Awards, and finally the Academy Awards. Did I miss any?

The thing with all of these awards and accolades is that they are a tally of the judgment of industry insiders. But the People’s Choice Awards is different, in that it’s a reflection of the tastes of the general public. It is more a fan celebration of pop culture celebrity than recognition for professional accomplishment. But the People’s Choice Awards have only been around since 1975. Prior to that, what about the opinion of the people who actually go to see the movies? What about the fans?

East of Eden poster

East of Eden poster

In 1955, an audience award poll, conceived of by the Motion Picture Theater Owners’ Organization, took place in more than 8,000 theaters across the country. Over 14 million ticket buyers participated to vote for what they thought were the best performances of 1955 for films released before Sept. 30. For his performance in East of Eden, James Dean was voted the Audience Award for Best Performance by a Motion Picture Actor. Other winners included Jennifer Jones for Best Performance by an actress and Mr. Roberts for Best Picture. At a banquet on Dec. 6, 1955, Dean’s costar Natalie Wood accepted the statuette, the “Audie,” on his behalf.

James Dean’s Audience Award trophy for Best Performance by a Motion Picture Actor.

James Dean’s Audience Award trophy for Best Performance by a Motion Picture Actor.

Now, this award is pretty significant because fans chose him over other well-known Hollywood actors with starring roles that year including Marlon Brando, Jimmy Steward, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra. One of the other categories that fans were able to vote on was Most Promising New Actor. That went to Tab Hunter for his performance in Battle Cry. Dean could have been considered for that since East of Eden was his first starring role in a motion picture but fans instead chose him for best overall.

One could argue that the tragedy of his death on Sept. 30 and the release of Rebel Without a Cause in October elevated his star and influenced public opinion of him. However, his subsequent Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for best actor seem to validate the public’s opinion: James Dean, for a short time, was considered by many to be the best.

To see Dean’s Audience Award trophy and other film-related artifacts, visit Eternal James Dean now through June 2, 2013.

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One Response

  1. The various unions and guilds, which represent all of the persons working on film projects, have awards & ceremonies honoring the best within the working craft fields in the motion picture industry. These are the awards that we, as working technicians in the industry, follow closely.

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