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.

Let’s go to the movies!

by Katherine Gould, Associate Curator of Cultural History

What is your most memorable movie-going experience? We all have them: the epic love story that made us cry as we gazed up at that big screen; the first special effects experience to blow our minds; or the first make-out session in the back of a darkened theater (confession: Top Gun, 1986, his name was Sean).

For me, it’s not any one particular movie that is most memorable, but rather my overall movie-going experience as a kid. I grew up on Army bases across the county and most would have a single-screen theater that showed second-run films. I remember the seats being filled not only with kids and parents in civilian clothes but also men and women in uniform. Before the start of each movie, the theater would darken and everybody would rise and remove their caps for the national anthem. The screen would be filled with rousing, patriotic images of tanks rolling across rugged terrain, Navy destroyers smashing through the high seas, and fighter planes soaring over the mountains. Even now, quite a few years later, the memory of those experiences is as clear as day.

I queried the staff of the Indiana State Museum to find out about some of their favorite movie-going experiences. Because sometimes the best part of history is not researching important artifacts or examining “old-timey” photographs, but rather simply recalling our own experiences with the past, and what it means to us. That’s what makes history fun. That’s what makes it personal. So, for some of you, your memory of going to a theater to see Top Gun may involve squealing at seeing Tom Cruise playing beach volleyball or gripping your seat while watching the action-packed fighter jet scenes. For me, the memory is something completely different. Continue reading