We’re back with another edition of Golden Age on the Silver Screen. I’m contemplating changing the title…yay or nay? Anywho, we’re back with another James Dean biopic Hope you’re not bored of Mr. Dean because we got a few more of these films in the pipeline (Dean and Marilyn seem to the go-to character of the made-for-TV world). The 1976 film James Dean, otherwise known as James Dean: Portrait of a Friend has probably my favorite Dean performance so far. I’ll stand by the fact that Stephan McHattie is a far better Dean than James Franco. Interestingly, both this and the 2001 seem to follow the same timeline and trajectory. You can read my review of the 2001 film here. The main issue with both films is ultimately how dull they are. This 1976 version suffers from being too enamored with Dean, ultimately never going anywhere with the story and compressing a lengthy life into 90 minutes. McHattie makes this worth watching for true Dean-philes.
Told from the point-of-view of James Dean’s college roommate William Bast (Michael Brandon), the film follows Dean’s rise to fame and his growing relationship with Bast.
A few interesting tidbits before I review the film proper. Netflix seems to have some issues if you request this DVD. My actual disc was labeled A Tribute to James Dean which is a documentary directed by Robert Altman. Several comments on Netflix mention getting the documentary (which is labeled James Dean) in lieu of this film. I’m not quite sure what the issue is, just keeping you all aware in case it happens to you. In terms of technical merit this film has a bad transition to DVD. For an official DVD it has interference as if it was recorded off of VHS; at one point the movie returns from a commercial break to William talking mid-sentence. It’s got really screechy audio. I shouldn’t complain too harshly considering how hard to find these made-for-TV biopics are. I should be happy I found one this old.
In terms of source material with this film you have opening narration telling us it’s based on memories of Bast himself. Said memories are to be “intensely personal,” and “incomplete.” Considering we jump pretty quickly through Dean’s life I’d say a lot is incomplete. I know little about Bast, or his supposed relationship with Dean. I’ve read in various books, both sleazy and otherwise, that have alluded to Dean and Bast being lovers. The film doesn’t shy away from this and has Dean attempting to dabble in homosexuality by propositioning Bast, and going to drag clubs as a means of honing “his craft.” I can’t say whether I believe this or not, the sexuality of stars of the past is always ripe for speculation, but the film doesn’t overindulge in it, probably due to the nature of television, so it doesn’t become sleazy.
Really not much about Dean the man is revealed. Since your main character is meant to be Bast, he is narrating and it does follow his relationship with Dean, the audience finds themselves distanced from the legend. It yields both good and bad results. On the plus side you don’t have the overwrought melodrama of Dean brooding over his parents like the Franco film did. A lot of what you learn about Dean is told organically via conversations Bast and Dean have. Bast jokes about Dean swearing on his mother’s grave which opens up the revel that Dean’s mother is dead. The Franco film would have flashed back to Dean’s mother dying, and Dean doing some melodramatic scene about it. Here, Dean doesn’t brood but you can tell it affects him because of how he acts.
Honestly, Stephen McHattie‘s performance is probably the best I’ve seen of any actor portrayal while doing this series. Shockingly, McHattie in 1976 looks like Dean with the piercing eyes and the pout. He’s so expressive with his eyes that he doesn’t have to sulk to convey sadness or anger. When he’s happy he’s not manic, but has a coy smile that tells you everything. This is how James Dean is people, take note! The director, Robert Butler, appears to love McHattie as Dean too and this produces the problem of extended scenes of Dean monologuing for the camera. At one point he goes on a five-minute monologue with him standing in front of a black background reading a speech. It goes on too long, and it’s not as if we don’t know Dean is a fantastic actor. It just seems like a means of telling the audience, or at least future casting directors, that McHattie can act and you don’t need to prove that either!
When the film isn’t monologuing it’s not doing much of anything really. The film focuses predominantly on Dean’s college years, and time at the Actor’s Studio. This was all tread in the 2001 film to the point that I’m inclined to say the Franco film was a remake of this! At one point Dean and friend Christine White (Candy Clark) have a conversation about who will be in the room that’s reused verbatim in the Franco film. You do have Dean meeting an obsessed fan played by a young Amy Irving, but the women in this are interchangeable due to having such limited screen time. Tellingly, in a 94 minute film the women are just changing faces leaving the entire film to be about Bast and Dean. The film mentions Pier Angeli, who Bast says in the narration was a great love of Dean’s, in a 20 second scene of Dean outside her wedding. We also see Dean slapping a girl at one point.
I didn’t like James Dean as a movie, but Stephen McHattie is the best and makes the film worth watching if only to see his resemblance to Dean. The movie itself is dull and feels far longer than 94 minutes. I can’t say how much of Bast’s narrative is authentic, but again McHattie is the reason to watch.
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James Dean (1976)
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.