Somewhere it's always the '50s. Do a little satellite surfin' or just hippity-hop through your cable channels and you're bound to run into some reminder of this decade that won't go away. Marilyn Monroe, its dominant female sex symbol, made a ghostly return to the spotlight earlier this year in a CBS miniseries and via re-releases of her movies on DVD.
Now James Dean, a fellow icon of the era, makes his own vicarious comeback. A new TNT cable movie, succinctly titled "James Dean," premieres tonight, and tomorrow night TCM airs a long-forgotten documentary about Dean, plus two of his films.
As the world knows, he lived to make only three.
"James Dean," starring impressive newcomer James Franco in the difficult role of the difficult star -- and airing at 8, 10 and midnight tonight -- is an engrossing but generally undistinguished biography of the actor who has been called the First American Teenager. His best performance was probably in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden," the one Dean film that TCM is not showing. But it will air the seminal "Rebel Without a Cause" at 9:30 and the overblown "Giant" at 1 a.m.
The long-forgotten documentary, an artsy affair called "The James Dean Story," was produced by a then-unknown Robert Altman. It airs at 8 and 11:30 and is worth watching for its Zeitgeist value at least.
TNT's film, written by Israel Horovitz and directed by Mark Rydell, re-creates Dean's life and times with what might be called stunning adequacy. There's a distancing vagueness and evasiveness to the film; you're never quite sure why Dean's life is being brought up again, other than to take advantage of his still-exploitable myth.
Franco's performance is easily the best thing in the movie, conveying Dean's essence and angst without ever becoming a mere impersonation. That Dean boy, in case you didn't know, was one moody dudey. He could go from deep sulk to violent tantrum in a nonce. And often did. Horovitz seems to be saying there was method in his madness rather than madness in the method -- the "method" acting style, which Dean helped popularize.
Thus early in the film we see Dean go from pouty petulance to a near-violent confrontation with actor Raymond Massey (played with ridiculous insufficiency by Edward Herrmann) as they film a scene for "Eden." But he isn't being undisciplined; he's getting into character. Director Elia Kazan encourages the tension between Dean and Massey so as to heighten the realism of their confrontations in the film, Dean playing the disturbed son and Massey the cold, imperious father.
If not imperious, Dean's real-life father is certainly depicted as cold, and Dean's short life is seen as having been haunted by the early death of his mother and his father's veritably malicious indifference. Later in the movie, when Dean shoots a scene from "Rebel" in which the rebel attacks Daddy (played by Jim Backus in the original film), he is so inflamed he can't stop and has to be dragged away by members of the crew.
Michael Moriarty plays the real-life father, though at the end of the film some doubt is cast as to whether he really was Dean's biological dad. Moriarty and Horovitz never get around to really explaining the father, though, and his nasty resentment of his own son just seems arbitrary and perverse. He acts as if his wife died while giving birth to Dean, when in fact Dean was 9 years old at the time.
One of the most painful images in the film is of that 9-year-old boy keeping vigil next to the mother's casket as it is brought by train to the Indiana town where Dean grew up. The filmmakers do not see Dean's off-screen explosiveness and broodiness as poses designed to enhance an image but as honest expressions of alienation and yearning. The first generation to claim Dean as its own found him genuine, too -- saw things that struck them as breathtakingly authentic -- and grimly familiar.
Every tormented teenage rebel since owes something to the prototypical persona Dean established on the screen.
As for Dean's private life, the film tends to tippy-toe at times. There was talk that it would approach the subject of Dean's alleged bisexuality. It does. It approaches it and then runs like hell. An NBC movie also called "James Dean" that aired back in 1976 (with Stephen McHattie as Dean) was probably just as "bold" about dealing with this aspect of Dean's life as the new film is. So much for progress.
In the TNT version, we see Dean as a young actor in New York accepting an invitation to a party at the home of an apparently gay producer. He goes to the apartment at midnight, as instructed. Through the open door, handsome young men -- and no pretty young women -- can be seen. Dean enters, the door closes, and that's that. The filmmakers seem terrified of what might have gone on behind that door.
Of course it's shocking to imagine that homosexuals might have been active in the New York theater of the 1950s. Why, the very idea! Or so it apparently seems to the filmmakers. Worse, they make the producer seem corrupt and creepy, and by closing the door in our faces, suggest that Dean's gay side, if he had one, was by definition dark and shameful.
Before long, Dean is back in Hollywood and madly in love with beautiful Pier Angeli (Valentina Cervi), who is filming "The Silver Chalice" and whose fanatically protective mama (the very formidable Karen Kondazian -- mamma mia!) shoos Dean away from her precious daughter. No one plays Sal Mineo in the film, although Dean is rumored to have had an intimate relationship with him as well. Indeed, it's right there on-screen in "Rebel": Both the Natalie Wood character and the Mineo character are obviously in love with the rebel Dean plays.
Rydell's direction of the film is less impressive than his terrifically robust performance as monster movie mogul Jack L. Warner, who is forever taking Dean aside and reprimanding him for his portentous pranks. He tells Dean to get rid of his motorcycle because "this studio backs stars, not corpses." Later, when Dean buys the Porsche in which he will be killed, Warner insists, "No more racing cars . . . get rid of it." Unfortunately, Dean failed to take the advice.
The crash is re-created with a series of blurry stills that fade to a blinding white, effective even if it was dictated as much by budget constraints as by Rydell's imagination. Though the portrait of Dean is 90 percent sympathetic, Horovitz does have a young Martin Landau (Sam Gould), who becomes Dean's friend while both study acting, tell Dean, "You're an ambitious, selfish son of a bitch." But he says it in a sort of joking, "what-are-friends-for?" way.
Besides, ambitiousness and selfishness are not exactly unheard-of characteristics where actors are concerned. The film's version of Dean wants to be good, to be accepted and respected and of course to be loved. He scoffs at the phony frills of Hollywood stardom, another badge of honor for him.
The perennial question is implicitly asked by the film, and answered: If Dean had lived, would he have become a great actor, or is he a legend only because he died young? "James Dean" argues, convincingly, that he had nothing to fear from the future. Nothing but the car that made an unexpected left turn in front of his on Sept. 30, 1955.
The career ended then. The legend had already begun.