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TV Review: “James Dean”

Much like HBO’s 1996 film Norma Jean & Marilyn, TNT’s new biopic James Dean (airing 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5) strives to demystify an American icon, and does so with force. It scrapes away the troubled actor’s smooth exterior to reveal a man so sensitive and insecure, he can hardly struggle through life.

The film opens with a scene from Dean‘s (James Franco) first movie, East of Eden, which gives us a glimpse of his acting genius. He infuriates respected actor Raymond Massey (Edward Herrmann) with an unscripted, off-the-cuff performance that clearly demonstrates that Dean does things his way.

But James Dean‘s director, Mark Rydell, does something shrewd here: he allows us to view the scene through the eyes of Eden‘s famed director, Elia Kazan (Enrico Colantoni). Kazan‘s point-of-view renders Dean as curiously magnetic–not the difficult, demanding actor Massey would make him out to be.

Immediately, we jump back to Dean as a young boy, dealing with the untimely death of his mother and coming to the realization that he and his father (Michael Moriarty, in a brilliant performance) are becoming increasingly distant. Jumping ahead a few years, as Dean struggles through teendom, we see him make an attempt to reconcile with his father, desperately seeking some paternal support from his old man concerning Dean‘s steadfast desire to become an actor.

He doesn’t exactly get it.

However, Dean extracts inspiration from the lack of approval that seems to follow him throughout life. He will become an actor, no matter what. And eventually he does, landing a part in a TV commercial, which allows him to avoid starvation in New York City. Nevertheless, though, Dean must endure a handful of embarrassing rehearsals to keep the cash coming in. But the cash that is coming in appears to be spent on booze, lots of it–an aspect about Dean‘s life that most don’t associate with the man.

The commercial gets Dean noticed by casting agents, and eventually he’s interviewing with Kazan for the prized role of Cal in Eden. It’s not your typical interview-but it is the best scene in the film. Franco delivers a haunting account of his life, expressing his true feelings about his childhood and his personal hatred for his father. Breaking out a switchblade, he bores a hole into his chair while he delivers the dialogue, as Kazan watches in quiet apathy. Damn fine scene.

Eventually, as the movie offers stream in, we see Dean unravel further and further, obsessed with acting but holding a bitter contempt for the very industry in which he works. At one point, he blatantly refuses to take part in a scene that requires him there-yet attacks the idea of a stand-in doing the performance for him.

And there you have it: a man in love with his art who cannot express himself as he’s been mentally conditioned to do so all his life. Stalemate.

Sure, you get the rebellious side of the man. Sure, you get the climactic Porsche crash at the end. All the legendary stuff. But you also get a morose portrait of a man twisted and torn, self-destructive but fiercely vulnerable.

Any fan should catch this flick.

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