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Biographical sketches revitalize telepic world

TNT's Dean, HBO's Gilmore projects lead field

While network telepics have generally receded into the mists of time, there are still TV movies that can artistically compete with those of the silver screen.

TNT’s “James Dean” seems one of the front-runners in the category this year, a nice successor to ABC’s winning biopic last year, “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.”

The script for “James Dean,” written by noted playwright Israel Horovitz, was a feature project for seven years, originally at Warners, before Turner Network Television decided to bring it to life. Finding an actor, outside of a then-too-young Leonardo DiCaprio, to play Dean was a dilemma, solved with a career-making performance by James Franco. And Horovitz’s psychological insight into Dean’s abandonment by his father became the fulcrum of the storyline.

“Why would a father ship his wife’s body back on a train with an 8-year-old son, never go to the funeral and never pick the son up again, never bring the son back out to him?” Horovitz recalls of the ideas that helped fuel the creative process.

The train ride from Santa Monica to Indiana book-ends a unique chronology that Horovitz created, working with former Actors Studio cohort director Mark Rydell in a fashion Horovitz describes as “very invested.” Their agreement to not work on the project if the right actor was not found suggests just that.

A cultural icon of an entirely different stripe, convicted killer Gary Gilmore, in 1997 was the first person in over a decade to be executed, by a firing squad no less. His brother, journalist Mikal Gilmore, wrote a searing, honest memoir that won the National Book Critics Circle award for biography and became HBO’s “Shot in the Heart.”

“I actually tried to keep myself out of the book as much as possible, until my place in the story became the narrative drive,” explains Gilmore, played by Giovanni Ribisi, matched in onscreen charisma by Elias Koteas as older brother Gary. “I never saw it as about me. I saw the book as about family and I saw the central character as my father … and the hero as my brother Frank.”

“I know in a way Mikal’s book was so popular, so you’re actually responsible for the popularity of the book,” says writer Frank Pugliese, who focused on the relationship of the two brothers, with flashbacks including the alcoholism and physical abuse that were a large part of the family dynamic.

Mikal praises the production for not settling for an ending with the ever-popular idea of closure, especially in such a dark tale. “The story is the consequence, the story is the aftermath … that there are things that you have to live with that you cannot live with. … And that the only grace that you’re left with is memory and love and a kind of limited forgiveness.”

Executive producer Tom Fontana was an essential element, having proved at adept at a gloves-off approach with “Oz,” his HBO prison series that has upped the ante on dramatic shock value.

“One of the things I learned about with ‘Oz’ was that these are people who pay for this specifically so they’re coming to it the way that people who go to the theater go to the theater. … They’re not like other television audiences,” he says. “They seem to want this kind of intensity as opposed to backing away from it.”

Audiences and critics demand a certain accuracy in historical feature films. But do cable and network biopics get held to the same standards of the truth and nothing but the truth?

Pulling no punches, Showtime’s “The Day Reagan Was Shot” concentrated on the power vacuum that ensued after the assassination attempt on the life of the president. Writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh exhaustively researched the event, producing a riveting portrait of Alexander Haig, played by Richard Dreyfuss, and the little-known fact that a medical student got past security into the hospital room of the president.

Nevertheless, Nowrasteh objects strongly to the concept of total accuracy for either feature or television films. “If we accept these standards, what are we going to do, take about a dozen of Shakespeare’s historical plays and throw them out? There’s a larger truth at work here in some of these historical adaptations or dramas that’s more important than the accuracy of each incident.”

Steve Gillon, University of Oklahoma history professor and resident historian for the History Channel, feels “The Day Reagan Was Shot” and “Shackleton” particularly capture an essence of history and character.

“Maybe because it’s a smaller audience they’re appealing to,” he says, “but these television movies … do a much better job of dealing with personality and motivation and the complexity of human nature than do Hollywood movies, feature movies which present a very superficial and very monodimensional view of character and personality.”

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