A quick aside: Due to my birthday on Friday (yay me) I wasn’t able to get out this week’s Journeys in the Disney Vault so Fantasia will be put up next Friday.
Today’s Golden Age on the Silver Screen film is the 2001 TNT biopic James Dean. It’s one of the more famous films you’ll see in this column due to its star turn from James Franco (well before he invaded every genre of film and television). While Franco is the closest thing we’ll get in appearance and performance to Dean himself the film is too truncated to have an impact. At a measly 90 minutes this film sprints through Deans life focusing on his early training as an actor and making East of Eden while virtually ignoring his roles in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Amidst all that is a hackneyed and trite father/son relationship drama that has little basis in fact and makes Dean’s life seem shallow. It’s an ambitious story to be turned into a film (and we’ll be seeing several other films attempt to recreate Dean’s life) and probably one of the better versions of Dean’s story but far from perfect.
Detailing the life of James Dean (James Franco), the film shows his early career studying the Method. Along the way he gets his star-making turn in East of Eden while trying to understand why his father Winton (Michael Moriarty) is estranged from him.
The pedigree of this made-for-television film should tell audiences this film is going to be heavy on the schmaltz considering director Mark Rydell is best known for making The Rose and On Golden Pond. I remember how heavily TNT hyped this film and I’m actually glad I missed this because I would have assumed this was all based in fact. All things considered James Dean is the most accurate film I’ve seen out of this column (at least in terms of what I know). Having read several books both written and indirectly citing Dean I won’t say I’m an expert but I do know about his life and his acting career. There are moments that have been referenced in numerous biographies like director Elia Kazan (played here by the always awesome Enrico Colantoni who does great with a rather minor role) playing a trick on actor Raymond Massey (played by Edward Herrmann) to record his surprise at Dean’s performance. Dean’s abrupt departure from his star-making play to make East of Eden is documented as well as his desire to be like Marlon Brando are all based in fact and shown.
Had the film tried harder to focus on Dean the actor and not the sentimental father/son relationship this could be a biopic of worth. The problem lies in the films focus on explaining every quirk of Dean’s personality being related to how his father never loved him. We see Dean acting quirky and odd because of his Method acting in the beginning, and in his life story a lot of his tics and motivations were due to the Method but here they’re explained away as being due to his drawing on his tempestuous relationship with his dad. We do flashback and spend about 20 minutes with a young Dean and his mother where the father/son relationship is depicted as frosty. Numerous times Dean’s mother says Winton is mad at her, not James but we never know why. Throughout the film Dean returns to his father’s house and tries to connect with him, even being helped by his father’s new wife and yet the film plays on this relationship as being built on a mystery. Why is Winton Dean so cold to James? It’s an unnecessary plot device that takes precedence over showing Dean’s life and career.
The big “climax” of the film is Dean confronting his father and discovering why they have no relationship. It took me all of thirty seconds to figure out why and I figured it out within the first ten minutes of the movie so when it’s revealed it has all the impact of a wet washcloth. To complicate matters….it never happened. Dean never confronted his father nor is there any strong evidence that Winton Dean was not James’ father. In several articles Dean theorized that was why his father disliked him but again, no proof whatsoever! It’s not as big a lie as anything in Goodbye, Norma Jean but making it such a huge focal point of the movie really sullied Dean as an icon. If you didn’t know anything about Dean or his life and based it all on watching this movie you’d assume Rebel Without a Cause was a biography of Dean’s life as the way the confrontation with his father is set-up is far too close to scenes in Rebel to not be intentional. After this big “confrontation” Dean returns to work on Giant and is apparently relieved and able to work, because that was his only problem. After Dean’s death in the film we see Winton sitting on a train with Dean’s casket, father and son together. I found this to be an offensive gimmick like father and son could only come together in death. Does anyone know if Dean’s father even attended his funeral? I just don’t understand why this relationship has to be the biggest in the film. It really causes everything to be neglected.
Aside from that the rest of the film is a true Cliff’s Notes version of Dean’s life. The film opens with his filming East of Eden and that’s the only film given any significance throughout the 90 minutes. The film ignores Rebel Without a Cause and Giant aside from one scene recreated from each. Not to ignore East of Eden (a film I still have to see) but Rebel is what made Dean an icon and to give it all of five minutes implies that the either the director didn’t care or that they couldn’t get rights (or a similar legal issue). We do get some interesting scenes of Dean learning the various acting methods, with the teacher helping Dean explore his motivations, which I enjoyed and if the film wanted to spend 90 minutes detailing Dean’s early life and ignoring his film career I would have been fine with that. To make this a 90 minute movie is a disservice as there’s so much about Dean’s life and that needs a two-hour film or a miniseries like Life with Judy Garland.
The film doesn’t go into any of the lurid elements of Dean’s life which is good. I’m personally sick of these cheap biopics that capitalize on the dirty elements of the stars. The film does include one lone scene of Dean going to a party that might be hosted by prominent homosexual actors but its out-of-place and makes little sense unless you’ve read something about Dean’s bisexuality. The only romantic relationship featured in the film is Dean’s love affair with Pier Angeli (played by Valentina Cervi). Cervi is gorgeous and like Franco is probably the best representation of Angeli today. She’s not given much outside of crying and speaking with an Italian lilt so I can’t fault her acting. Their relationship is seen as fraught with difficulties ranging from the studio trying to pull them apart to keep Dean as an object of lust for “14-year-old girls” (I don’t think that was Dean’s target demographic but sure) as well as Angeli’s Catholic mother. The film does mention the rumor that Angeli’s mother organized Pier’s marriage to Vic Damone but it completely ignores the fact that Dean attended Angeli’s wedding, something that could have made for compelling drama. I don’t know about the Angeli/Dean relationship extensively but I always assumed it was chaste, what with Angeli’s mother being such a presence in their relationship. Here there’s a scene of Dean and Angeli having sex…for all the people wanting a little sex with their celebs. A disturbing scene in particular involves Dean actually slapping Angeli and then throwing her down to have sex with her. Yep because who doesn’t love that? Aside from those scenes their relationship doesn’t have the romantic resonance you’d expect considering Angeli always mentioned Dean was the love of her life. Outside of the Angeli relationship the film introduces the character Christine White (Amy Rydell…yes there is nepotism in this film) whose a brief romantic interest to James but is unceremoniously dumped for no reason that’s ever shown to the audience.
As for James Franco as Dean, he’s good. He looks like Dean which is something you don’t always see in these films (see my review of White Hot and Goodbye, Norma Jean). In terms of acting Franco just appears to be mimicking the actor without actually acting himself. Sure it’s nice to have him do funny things like jump around and other techniques to get into a scene but I never actually said “Wow, James Franco became Dean.” It was more like “wow Franco could be a good James Dean impersonator.” His voice is a bit too high and nasally making it a distraction and the script is so thin you never feel like it’s representing Dean.
James Dean is just an unfocused film, plain and simple. It never knows whether it wants to showcase the rise of a legend or just showing his humble beginnings. Does it want to show his career or his personal life? Is it presenting Dean as he was or as he wished he could be? Had the film been able to answer any of those questions it could have had worth. The acting is good but the actors seem to be rushing to get ahead of the time constraints and where the film is accurate in several scenes its inaccuracies are just lazy (having the actor playing Nicholas Ray rock an eye patch when Ray didn’t lose his eyesight and wear the patch till the 1970s). The schmaltz also overpowers the film becoming as thick as maple syrup not just with the father/son relationship but also having Dean’s death be in slow motion with a fade to white…I don’t think he made it.
I will admit, this is a far better production then what I’ve seen. I’d put it on par with Life with Judy Garland although I found Garland more entertaining. It’s not at all the worst film you could watch in the biopic genre and Franco is worthy but the details are the problem.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.