Lengthy in its gestation as a Warner Bros. pic and still grand in its ambition as a cable TV movie, “James Dean” offers a personal look at one of America’s greatest icons, courtesy of director Mark Rydell and star James Franco. It’s a hushed project that finds its grandeur in the cinematic approach from director of photography Robbie Greenberg, who gives pic the look of a bigscreen rather than a television project. Viewers don’t necessarily walk away teeming with new insights into the prototypical teen rebel, and some facts about Dean’s life are shortchanged, yet as a individual portrait of an artist who refused to become part of the system, Franco’s achievement is considerable.
Plaudits are deserved all around for not starting with the September 1955 car crash that claimed Dean’s life and then flashing back to some childhood incident. “James Dean” starts where it should — with the youngster soliciting a role in a movie, in this case “East of Eden,” directed by Elia Kazan (Enrico Colantoni).
The script by playwright Israel Horovitz finds its emotional center in Dean’s quest for his father’s love and attention — a key thematic device in Dean’s two most famous pictures, “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause.” Dad and son were separated when Dean was 9, following the death of his mother, after which he moved to Indiana from Santa Monica to live with an aunt and uncle.
Michael Moriarty plays Dean’s father, Winton, with a restrained emotional frigidity and Dean reacts as his “Rebel” character Jim Stark would — through violent confrontation.
As he travels to New York and gets accepted into the Actors Studio, and on to Hollywood to do movies, Dean is portrayed as almost visionary, an actor so dedicated to his craft that he will indeed surpass Marlon Brando as America’s greatest.
Horovitz’s script insinuates the audience is already familiar with Dean’s filmic personas and how America has come to define the actor through only three prominent roles; pic could have delved deeper into more of Dean’s personal reflection after “Rebel” earned him the tag of America’s No. 1 teenager. Similarly, it’s unclear how comfortable the actor was with his move into an adult character in “Giant,” his final film.
Franco plays Dean as a socially awkward sort. He slouches, mumbles and irritates many of the people around him, but collectively these less-than attractive traits pique the interests of fellow actors, directors, acting coaches and studio moguls. He gets on Jack Warner’s nerves and that’s about it. He has no trouble making friends with Martin Landau (Sam Gould) and getting Kazan to see his side when it comes to playing a scene. A scene with Raymond Massey (Edward Herrmann) nicely juxtaposes old school-new school acting styles of the 1950s.
Romance with actress Pier Angeli (Valentina Cervi) seems to be the most dramatically enhanced aspect of the picture. These scenes eliminate any hints of homosexuality, a topic that is treated short and sweet as innuendo, and even that’s done in a joking manner.
Location and time-period shots are so strong that scenes shot on the lot have an air of falseness. Actors seemingly are cast according to fluidity within a role rather than any resemblance they may have to the real people. John Frizzell’s music can get mighty big and weepy at times, but for the most part it’s just doing its job of enhancing a scene.