There are those who would insist the best thing to have ever happened to James Dean was his death--at an early age, in a violent car wreck, sitting behind the wheel of a Porsche Spyder. What the crash destroyed, history left intact. We did not have to watch him grow old, blow up, star in movies so far beneath him not even a geologist could find them. We didn't have to watch him become Marlon Brando, who long ago stopped being eccentric and charming and turned into a sullied, bloated version of himself. We didn't have to watch him become Dennis Hopper, who now seems to wind up in good movies only by accident. We didn't have to watch him become Elizabeth Taylor, who became two Elizabeth Taylors somewhere along the way. We waste our time wondering what would have become of the likes of Dean, Monroe, Hendrix, Morrison and Joplin had they dodged their respective bullets, but we've enough proof to know that no matter how much talent they possessed and had yet to share, more than likely they would have turned into self-parodies, faded lights, hollow icons. Dean himself once suggested, "Dream as if you'll live forever; live as if you'll die today." How can you grieve for a man who lived and died just as he wanted?
And so the legend lives on and on and on, as a trademarked name affixed to merchandise and posters and images and ad campaigns. He has been the source material, either as subject or specter, for more films than he actually made during his lifetime, among them the late writer-director James Bridges' 1978 9/30/55, the 1976 TV biopic James Dean and a 1997 on-the-cheap biography starring Casper Van Dien. (This doesn't include myriad documentaries made about Dean, which include Robert Altman's 1957 The James Dean Story, featuring outtakes and Dean's drive-safe ad, a most haunting bit of footage.) Now comes actor-turned-director Mark Rydell's made-for-TNT biopic James Dean, written by playwright Israel Horowitz (The Indians Want the Bronx, Line) and starring James Franco as the tortured, tragic icon.
Rydell, who directed Steve McQueen in The Reivers and Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, was once a friend and contemporary of Dean's in The Actors Studio; they appeared, briefly, in Glory in the Flower on television in 1952. As such, he isn't about to do anything to sully the legend: James Dean is a two-hour infomercial for the power of myth. It's less a straightforward biography than it is a hazy, dreamy montage of scenes--"a psychological portrait," as Rydell describes it, meaning it's more about mood than it is the man. It opens with Dean offending Raymond Massey (played by Edward Herrmann) on the set of East of Eden--he wanted the man playing his father to hate him, just as his real dad did--and ends with Dean hurtling toward the inevitable in the car he called "The Little Bastard." In between are scenes of pain and anguish; there's nothing at all light about the movie.
But the film works only because of Franco, best known as Daniel Desario on the short-lived series Freaks and Geeks; he was, for too short a while, NBC's resident rebel without a cause, at least until he ditched his pot-smoking posse for the Dungeons & Dragons crowd. That Franco looks just like Dean at times is a moot point (though there are moments when the similarities are eerie, as though a ghost walked among us). There's just something so utterly unforced, something so natural and real about Franco's performance. He aches like someone unaware there's a camera on him; he plays the icon as fragile child, not just as sensitive man. He plays not just Dean, but the tragic myth, yet he never overplays it (the cynic might say he underplays it, pouting when he shouldn't). It's the kind of performance that makes a guy a star. Look what it did for James Dean.