James Dean (Mark Rydell, 2001): USA

Reviewed by Vee Rice. Viewed on DVD.

Mark Rydell’s biopic James Dean (2001) follows the life of 1950s Hollywood phenomenon, James Byron Dean. This made-for-TV movie peeks into the short, fast life of the iconic method actor. James Franco gives a marvelous performance as the young rebel. This is one of the most extraordinary biographic pictures I have seen. It makes for a beautiful predecessor to biopics like Ray (2004), The Aviator (2004), and Walk the Line (2005).

One of the great things about this film is that it is not simply a collection of Dean’s filmography; it is an intimate portrayal of the personal life of one of the most famous actors in Hollywood history. We see perhaps why Dean acted out the way he did. His broken, tumultuous home life and his disastrous love affair all give insight into the insecure, enigmatic life of the Idol. While the film is admittedly speculation mixed with fact, the true focus is on portraying the actor as a human—not just a legend. One of the most important aspects of that, I feel, are the developments of the relationships (or sometimes lack thereof) Dean built with his friends, family, and professional peers, which is truly captivating to watch.

Franco’s chemistry with Valentina Cervi as Pier Angeli, Michael Moriarity as Winton Dean, and Sam Gould as Martin Landau is entirely believable. Every performance is strong and powerful. While Cervi has little wiggle room to show off her acting abilities, she is convincing as Dean’s heartbreakingly beautiful love interest. Edward Hermann’s performance as Raymond Massey is classy and sophisticated. Moriarity plays a quintessential distant father figure.

I have reasonable reservations about the film. It, much like Dean’s life, is tragically short. I am happy to sit through a beautifully crafted three-hour long movie. There are several scenes that could have (and should have!) been expanded. I think the relationship between Dean and Christine could have been elaborated on more, as well as his friendship with Martin Landau and several other actors of the time. It’s scandalous how downplayed James Dean’s sexuality is in this interpretation of his life. Other than these few discrepancies, James Dean is a stunning film.

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