I skipped Biopic Theater last week, but boy do I have a doozy of a film for you. This is the last of the James Dean biopics (that I know of), and I think it quite possibly is the worst. To go further, I think this could be this year’s Goodbye, Norma Jean in terms of being one of the worst movies I’ve watched for Biopic Theater. With the previous two Dean stories there were bizarre routes to take and historical inaccuracies that are highlighted, but I question whether the makers of James Dean: Race With Destiny (aka James Dean: Live Fast, Die Young) even know anything about Dean other than he wore a red coat that one time. Okay, I’m being unnecessarily mean, but this movie doesn’t care about who Dean was at all. Dean is portrayed as a high school jock who never grew up, a chronic womanizer, and who apparently possesses the mentality of a 13-year-old girl. After watching this, I’m pretty excited to move away from James Dean for a good, long while. Like all the previous James Dean movies, this one follows Dean (Casper Van Dien) as he struggles to gain fame and marry the doe-eyed Pier Angeli (Carrie Mitchum).
I can’t find any information telling me if this received a theatrical release. Somewhere along the way I’d heard this was a television miniseries, and it feels like a bizarre concoction that could have easily been a miniseries. Despite IMDB listing it as a TV movie, I have to think when that didn’t pan out they added in nudity and cursing to get it to theaters. Oh yes, much like The Sex Symbol, this has one nude scene that feels as if it was shoved in there to add something, again to gain a theatrical release. The budget/casting/crew all screams low-budget. The same three songs play through the entire movie, if that says anything about how much they were working with. Director Mardi Rustam only has three directing credits to his name, with this being his last, while screenwriter Dan Sefton has made quite a name for himself in television. The rest of the cast is a who’s who of C-level talent; the aforementioned Van Dien and Mitchum, but also Diane Ladd (who we’ll be seeing in the Grace Kelly TV movie…thanks Amazon), Connie Stevens (I can’t seem to escape The Sex Symbol, can I?), and Casey Kasem? The biggest name is Robert Mitchum playing director George Stevens. Sadly, Mitchum died three months before this came out, and he looks beyond sickly. It’s ultimately depressing just to see such a fantastic, and once-intimidating, legend in his final months.
As for the film, to say it’s a stinker is putting things kindly. I understand that Dean lived such a short life, but at least the 2001 biopic and even the 1976 version fleshed out and showcased Dean’s backstory. While I appreciated this film’s brevity, it seemed to swirl around the same couple of months, and the only relationship of any importance is the one with Pier Angeli. We’ve seen Angeli show up in the other two biopics, but here the movie should have been retitled to include her because it’s as much her story as Dean’s. Angeli is our narrator (although that seems to be an afterthought in the script they make Carrie Mitchum read. It almost sounds as if she went back to say her character’s name after realizing she forgot to mention it.) The movie expands on their relationship in a way the other two biopics don’t. You understand how controlling Pier’s mother, here called Mama Angeli (Diane Ladd….who isn’t Italian), was and how she controlled Pier’s life and marriage; which is probably the only thing historically accurate about the movie itself.
I’ve harped on authenticity with all the other biopics in this series, but it felt most egregious in Race with Destiny. There’s only a few brief sequences of Dean filming his iconic roles, but the movie asserts that Elia Kazan hated Dean, that he hated Dean’s acceptance of Method acting, and that he vowed never to work with him again. I’ve never heard this story, anyone know if it’s true? The fundamental change is with Dean’s personality. I can only assume it’s because of Van Dien’s burgeoning persona as an action star (Starship Troopers, Van Dien’s claim to fame came out the same year). Gone is the shy, methodical Dean of the 2001 and 1976 versions. Here, we get a Dean that literally never existed; one who’s a chronic womanizer who openly cheats on Angeli. They turn James Dean into the high school jock! In one scene, Dean actually yells at Vic Damone (Louis D’Alto) “You leave my woman alone!” The film continues this misogynistic slant by having Dean tell Angeli several times, “you’re mine.” I don’t recall James Dean ever clubbing Pier Angeli over the head, and dragging her back to his cave but hey, maybe I’ve been reading the wrong books. Later on, he tells several women he has sex with that “I have no emotional capacity for love anymore” after losing Pier. First off, I’m pretty sure that’s a symptom of being a sociopath, and boy is this script crappy.
Suffice it to say, the acting is consistently terrible. There’s so many fake Italians in this movie, I was wondering if I was at an Olive Garden. The way the crew created the Angeli family was by giving everyone a tan and putting dark wigs on them. Ladd gets the dark wig, and thankfully doesn’t even try to put on an accent. Carrie Mitchum (did I mention she’s Robert Mitchum’s grand-daughter?) sounds Swedish in certain moments. A line like “Jimmy, were you speeding” sounds like it has several O’s in it. Since we haven’t fleshed out Angeli’s character enough in the other biopics, I’ll say Mitchum is the best we’ve got. If I had to rank the three Dean’s we’ve seen (Stephen McHattie in the ’76 version, Van Dien here, and James Franco in the ’01) I’d rank Van Dien as the worst. He’s got that All-American look, invoking the football player image that Dean has in this, but he’s too chiseled to be Dean. I maintain that McHattie is the best. Van Dien plays Dean far too smarmy and when he’s told to emote, in several tense confrontations, with Angeli Van Dien raises his voice to such a pitch I thought he was a 13-year-old girl telling her parents they’re ruining her life. It’s a wee bit over-the-top.
Don’t forget, everyone’s meant to be in their 20s, but look to be in their 30s. Some small-time hoods used as research during filming of Rebel Without a Cause look to be old enough to have children of their own, that’s not including how old Mitchum and Van Dien look. Speaking of Rebel Without a Cause, there’s two scenes detailing that film – did I mention Race With Destiny doesn’t care about Dean’s work – and the actor playing Sal Mineo has the most disturbing, dead-eyed stare. He moons over Dean, and vaguely propositions him in a room full of people. Apparently this, and Dean’s general douchebag behavior, prevents him from bonding with the cast (not true).
Was James Dean: Race With Destiny supposed to teach me something? I ask because the script and direction are not coy about the “morality” inherent in Dean’s story. For starters, Dean drives in a drag race throughout the entire film. I’m not quite sure if what we’re watching is meant to be a flashback while he’s driving, but it appeared that this race conveyed Dean’s recklessness and attempts to run away from his problems? How apropos that the subtitle is Race With Destiny…do you think that was intentional? The climax is equally ridiculous. Did you know Pier Angeli saw Dean moments before his death? Race With Destiny asserts she did. As Dean drives around the corner to his death, we actually have bagpipes playing Taps! I didn’t think Dean was going to die before, but those bagpipes proved it. The final image, the image the audience gets to leave with, is of a blood-spattered James Dean. A lovely way to end a film, in my opinion! So, yeah this movie sucked. Honestly, none of the James Dean biopics are that great, but this is the worst of the lot. The 1976 biopic was boring, and the 2001 version tried to infuse far too much conjecture into Dean’s persona. The other two are worth watches, with the ’76 version having the best Dean. I would skip this unless you’re a fan of the actors, or want to explore Dean’s relationship with Angeli (I don’t think it’ll give you much to explore).
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.