About James Dean, who made only three movies before he died in a car crash in 1955, the film critic Pauline Kael wrote that his "strangled speech," his "confused efforts at gesture" and his "beautiful desperation" came out as a kind of poetry. Gauche, vulnerable, and misunderstood, he was a hero of our adolescent need. He suffered in public.
Of course, he also inflicted some pain. In "Rebel Wihtout a Cause," for instance, he hurts Sal Mineo by being with Natalie Wood. And in "Giant," which did not open until after his death, he discovers oil and hurts Rock Hudson.
But mostly we remember him as a crazy mixed-up kid, smoking a cigarette or curled up like a turtle, wanting some father to love him more. In "James Dean," a remarkably absorbing docudrama Sunday night on TNT cable, he is portrayed to an eerie perfection by James Franco from the television series "Freaks and Geeks."
Doubtless, the directors Dean bedeviled were substitute fathers, like Enrico Colantoni as Elia Kazan, Barry Primus as Nicholas Ray, and Craig Barnett as George Stevens. The director of the TV movie, Mark Rydell, casts himself as Jack Warner, the studio boss who couldn't control the boy. Valentina Cervi plays Pier Angeli, the one great love of Dean's life who married Vic Damone instead. But what keeps us watching is Franco's combustible bundle of feelings and velocity, of motorcycles and bongo drums.
Oddly, the docudrama is much more persuasive than "The James Dean Story," a 1957 documentary on Turner Classic Movies channel Monday night, of passing interest only because it was Robert Altman's first feature, which omits Dean's father entirely but piles on a ludicrous narration by Martin Gabel. Dean himself would have cackled.
We are talking, of course, about the Freudian '50s, when boys were bad because their families failed tlove them; when the inability to articulate was a sign of wounded sensitivity; when being misunderstood was a proof of caring too much.
This all changed with rock 'n' roll. Our hip-hop kids today would be insulted if we thought we understood them.
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