August 02, 2001
Jimmy, we hardly knew you. Despite fine intentions, TNT's new Dean biopic doesn't get us much closer.
by Rob Kendt
Now that we can look back on the 20th century in its entirety, its icons seem ever more distant, preserved in the amber of collective rather than firsthand memory, even as its dominant motifs, having logged the necessary half-life of hindsight, begin to acquire the clarity of posterity. We can think of it as the American century, or a century of the cinema. Or, without excluding either of these, we could call it the Century of the Actor, since actors, particularly American movie actors, are the most recognizable currency of the ascendant international media culture--the faces on its bills, if you will.
It was an actors' century in other, more earthbound ways, too: Actors professionalized themselves for the first time, forming guilds and training institutions, codifying methods and "schools," and commanding salaries exceeding those paid to heads of state. While in the previous century an actor killed the president, in the 20th, an actor became president.
Hovering beatifically at the center of this actor's century is James Dean, the 1950s youth anti-hero struck down fatefully in his prime, who remains arguably the most durably iconic actor to have graced the world's movie screens--and related merchandising. Indeed, a handful of famous Dean photographs have been reproduced ad nauseum on every conceivable collectible tchotchke, from shot glasses to license plates, so that these images--of Dean in the red jacket and jeans, kicking back in an open car in his cowboy hat, or in the turtleneck and white jacket--are a sort of shorthand for "movie star," rivaled only by visages of Marilyn Monroe.
In fact, today Dean may be more widely known for these still photographs than for his films, of which there were but three (and none, besides perhaps East of Eden, are particularly great films but for Dean's presence). The culture wears him like the medal of a saint whose miracles have long been forgotten. This benign neglect may begin to be set right by James Dean, a perfunctory new biopic debuting this week on TNT, with the talented, understated young James Franco (Freaks and Geeks) in the lead. Despite Franco's cool, uncloying, very natural impersonation of Dean, it isn't much of a film, even by TV biopic standards, but it does give us a sketch of Dean's brief, wild ride to the top, and it strives to give the myth some human contours.
Strives too hard, I think. Israel Horovitz's script has a pop-pysch thesis as unsubtle as the Freudian schematics of Dean's two definitive films, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause: Dean became an actor to gain his father's approval, denied him since his mother's death at age 9, and throughout his career sought surrogate fathers to love or hate, or both: Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray, Jack Warner, George Stevens, or the fictional patriarchs with whom he faced off in Eden and Rebel.
So was Dean's brilliance and immediacy onscreen a case of acting at all? In recent interviews, this was one question I had for Franco and the film's director, Mark Rydell, who knew Dean in New York in the 1950s. In a pivotal scene in the film, Dean spends his audition for Eden talking to Kazan (Enrico Colantoni) about his own problems with his father. Kazan tells an associate after Dean leaves the building: "He is Cal."
"I think the hypothesis that the film puts out is that one of the reasons he was so great was because of the parallel between the parts and his life," agreed Franco, a 22-year-old from Palo Alto, Calif., who studied literature at UCLA and acting at Playhouse West in North Hollywood. "And I think, although the challenge of straying away from ourselves in parts can be good, I don't think it should be looked down upon or shied away from that you go for yourself and you play yourself. There's something very valuable about just bringing the truth of one's self to a part--maybe you won't have the great range, but you'll bring something deeper."
And Rydell rejected the notion that his Dean film equates acting with simple one-to-one identification with the part.
"I'm of the conservatory school; I've been teaching at the Actors Studio for 30 years. I know that acting can be taught. Acting is a craft. Jimmy studied that craft--savagely studied it," Rydell recalled of the off-screen Dean. "Yes, he had an individual personality that was attractive. But when he came to the work, he functioned like a craftsman. He knew how to work. It's not just Jimmy being Jimmy. It was Jimmy using himself, like any good craftsman should."
The craft Dean and his predecessors Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift brought to the screen in the 1950s did stand out from the studied professionalism, not to say stiffness, of most Hollywood actors before them. Indeed, Dean's great contribution to screen acting was not so much extraordinary technique as an almost frightening aliveness. His palpable, unsettling life force still jumps, even from a panned-and-scanned small screen. In East of Eden (1955), Dean doesn't stand or sit still; he's always squirming or bounding or creeping about, and his habit of interrupting other actors mid-line has a remorselessly youthful prankishness about it.
"He was well known for being difficult with the blocking and refusing to be this robotic, cut-out prop," said Franco. "You watch the other actors and there they are--they're standing in their places and they have their light and they're saying all the lines. Well, here's James Dean and he's all over the place. He's using movement as an expression as well, and he's using the props. Everything is for a greater purpose."
On a craft level, Dean's vitality, which no amount of years in a film canister can dim, was and remains great and valuable inspiration for actors. On the career side, though, a more dubious legacy of the Dean mythology is his legendary meteoric rise to fame. For all the emotional torment he brought to his work, his career arc seemed to have the shape of, say, falling off a log.
The new TNT biopic does little to debunk this. We see precious little struggle or hard work, just a kind of blank determination to reach the top. He lands a meeting with an agent who wants to give the kid a break, and announces he won't consider anything but lead roles. He gets into the Actors Studio first try; we don't see him wrestling with scene work or bolting the moment Lee Strasberg gives him a critique.
The acting and career part was easy, the film seems to say--it's life that was hard for James Dean, and of course that was why he was such a great actor. Most working actors pounding the pavement in Hollywood and New York know better, but it's a damaging myth for the uninitiated--for those who would dismiss actors as children acting out and for those who would embark on an acting career as a youthful lark.
For his part, Franco wasn't lured to Hollywood by the Dean legend. For his generation, Johnny Depp and River Phoenix were the idols, and even then, Franco recalled, their world didn't seem accessible to him.
"I didn't have a real clear conception of how you become an actor," Franco said. "As a child, it seemed like another world. Certain people are actors and that's just how it is. Then when I got older, it was almost like I missed the boat or something, you know--in high school, I'm 17, and Buffy's already a star or whatever. Then, I went to UCLA as a literature major, and once I was in L.A., it became clear to me, Oh, it's a possibility."
If Dean was driven to act to fill a hole in his personal life, as the film proposes, does Franco feel a similar lack driving him?
He said that, in playing Dean, "What I decided to go with was that he needed to fill the loneliness and fill that lack of worth, that lack of love, and maybe success would do that, maybe adoration by fans would somehow fulfill that. But also acting is such a wonderful medium of expressing a wide array of human emotion. With actors, it's a lack of excitement, a need to maybe experience more than just one life, to live in these imaginary worldsÉ That's what I found in myself and a lot of the actors around me. It's an overabundance of life, maybe--always trying to dive into some other world and take other people and other emotions on, because this one maybe isn't satisfactory."
This lust for life would explain Dean's storied obsessions with bullfighting, bongos, late-night debauchery--said Rydell, "He drank, he took drugs, he fucked everybody"--and the fast sports cars with which his early death is associated. All told, my interviews with Franco and Rydell about Dean were far more entertaining and illuminating than the film they've made. It's an irony of Hollywood, or maybe an index of how much it's changed, that so much more of Dean's fascinating life, more of who he really was, made it into his fictional films than into this new biopic.
For all its well-appointed design and tasteful performances, TNT's new Dean movie stands in relation to Dean's work more or less alongside the paraphernalia sold on Hollywood Boulevard--as a knockoff of the original.