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James Dean

Warner Bros. // Unrated // January 22, 2002
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted February 11, 2002 | E-mail the Author
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Movie star bios have lately been the domain of TV movies, like the bizarre Judy Garland debacle Me and My Shadows or the even more unwatchable Ashley Judd / Mira Sorvino mess Norma Jean & Marilyn. TNT's James Dean manages to escape the traps that most of its competition fell into, partly through smart execution and partly due to its subject.

James Dean himself was an acting dynamo who could light the screen on fire with his strange, anarchic energy and, in just three leading roles, helped change American film acting forever. Along with Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, and a host of others, Dean brought the New York style of Method acting, written about most famously by Russian acting coach Constantin Stanislavsky and taught locally at The Actor's Studio by Lee Strasberg. This style was meant to personalize the actor and the role by introducing the actor's own experiences to the preparation and performance.

The results were thought be more natural and primitive, with a lot of mumbling instead of grand theatrical projecting, and an emphasis on dark emotions over old Hollywood preening. Dean was perhaps the loosest, most unpredictable of his generation. In his lead roles (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant) he seems in a perpetual state of improvisation, as if even he doesn't know what he will do next, regardless of the fact that these films have been completed and unchanged for almost half a century. Each viewing seems fresh and new.

TNT's biopic of Dean gives a strong sense of his style, on and off screen, through his equally unpredictable behavior and wild life, but doesn't seek to overanalyze him. Whereas other films introduce imaginary characters and dual personalities to try to somehow make the internal external, Dean only provides the actor's extremely strained relationship with his father as explanation for his behavior. The rest of the work falls onto the shoulders of James Franco, who portrays Dean as an intelligent, private, moody young man who wants to be great but isn't completely sure if it's possible. The film is only a little over 90 minutes long, so it can't possibly do justice to an entire (albeit too brief) life.

Still, Franco's performance helps fill in the gaps. From the moment he first appears as a silhouette in a studio doorway, Franco ably projects Dean's complexities: The drive to succeed without conforming to the standard movie star style, his fierce independence while still comparing himself to others. The film positions his relationship with his father (the solid, subtle Michael Moriarty) as a driving factor in both his artistic development (the film's Dean draws on that rift for both his East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause performances) and his own personal struggles (his difficulties with domesticity, his near-suicidal need to drive dangerously), but without really becoming melodramatic. His father is cold and distant, but for reasons of his own (revealed during a brief father-son reunion near that end that seems totally fictional but works nonetheless).

The most engaging scenes are perhaps the parts dealing with Dean's films. Enrico Colantoni perfectly portrays Elia Kazan's technique of dealing with actors, often secretly giving them contradictory direction in order to manipulate the performances he wants, Barry Primus uses a few short scenes to paint Nicholas Ray as a wild, rebellious filmmaker, and Craig Barnett makes George Stevens the kind of straight shooter that would have trouble funneling Dean's energy into one direction at a time. These scenes, particularly the ones of the set of Kazan's East of Eden actually feel authentic, like real movie sets. It's always baffling when movies and TV shows try to sell completely inauthentic versions of filmmaking. If there is one thing every filmmaker should know how to portray a film set. The scenes here ring completely true.

The film also gets points for avoiding playing Dean's death as some sort of inevitable climax for the rest of the movie. Instead, he dies suddenly and shockingly, the way he did in real life. This ending denies any real closure, as it should. So, even when the film skirts parts of Dean's life (his ambiguous sexuality is barely explored), it still rings true on some basic emotional levels and in the portrayal of his acting style. By mimicking Dean so well, Franco only helps prove just how unique the man really was.

VIDEO:
The video is full-frame (its original aspect ratio) and looks fine. The image is crisp and colors are clear. Minimal dirt has made its way onto the print.

AUDIO:
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is also adequate. Voices are clear and the score sounds fine. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.

EXTRAS:
Trailers for Rebel Without a Cause and Giant are included (although East of Eden is absent) and they help illustrate both how live Dean's energy was and how close the producers of James Dean came to illustrating the original. Since the film mimics some of these classics' most famous moments a close comparison can be made. The Rebel trailer, taken from Warner's fine DVD of that film, looks great, while the Giant trailer is worn and beat up.

Dean's filmography, as well as those of the cast and crew of the TNT film, is also included.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
By avoiding melodrama and distilling Dean's life down to its basics, director Mark Rydell has crafted a film with a very specific focus: A man and his talent. Excellent looks at the making of Dean's three major films and fine acting make James Dean the perfect accompaniment to the original's films.

E-mail Gil at [email protected]

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