They may be making fewer of them, but the latest trend in made-for-TV movies is that they're getting...better! Over just the past year, we've seen programs ranging from a credible biography about Judy Garland (Judy Davis' harrowing performance, which is up for an Emmy, is the toughest acting by a woman on TV in recent memory) to HBO's Boycott (a remarkable take on the Martin Luther King story that was moronically ignored by Emmy nominators).
Now comes James Dean, which by any measure should have been a disaster -- Dean being among the most idiosyncratic and distinctive movie idols of the century -- and is instead a fascinating portrait of the artist as a young, indulged, crazy-mixed-up genius. Just as Judy Davis approached Garland as a mythic figure whose greatness sprang from neurotic emotional neediness, so does James Franco offer us a James Dean with a creative soul curdled by parental neglect and the frustrations of an inarticulate artist.
James Dean, directed by Mark Rydell, begins with the actor throwing Raymond Massey (portrayed by Gilmore Girls' Edward Herrmann) for a loop during the filming of 1955's East of Eden by insulting the older actor off screen. ''I offended him -- good,'' says Dean to director Elia Kazan (Just Shoot Me's Enrico Colantoni, in a shrewdly avid performance). ''Why 'good'?'' asks Kazan. '''Cause I need him to hate me [on screen],'' snaps Dean. It's an effective, if crude, way to introduce young viewers to Dean's Method-acting style, in which real emotions are summoned up in performance.
Franco starred as the chief hood, or ''freak,'' in NBC's wonderful 1999 drama Freaks and Geeks, and he's got Dean's sunken cheekbones and hooded glare. Franco could have walked through the role and done a passable Dean, but instead gets under the skin of this insecure, rootless young man. (Dean's mother died when he was 9; his cold father -- played with frost on his vocal cords by Michael Moriarty -- never approved of his profession.) The script for James Dean, by playwright Israel Horovitz, indulges in some pat psychoanalysis -- Dean is shown withdrawing from George Stevens (Craig Barnett), director of Dean's last movie, 1956's Giant, because, the actor says, Stevens ''reminded me of my father'' -- but Horovitz otherwise avoids standard clunky biopic dialogue.
Rydell has had an uneven career directing feature films, including everything from The Rose (1979), Bette Midler's best screen vehicle, to 1972's The Cowboys, a John Wayne film that Pauline Kael succinctly demolished as ''pious muck.'' He's probably a better actor than a director -- no one who's seen him as the crazy slimeball who smashes a girl's face with a shot glass in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) could ever forget him -- and in James Dean, he takes the juicy role of studio boss Jack Warner.
Rydell's Warner is a power-loving philistine who hates Dean's arrogance, partly because he doesn't understand the kid's weird angst and partly because it challenges his own arrogance: For Dean to have become a huge star in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause was, Rydell makes clear as both actor and director, a threat to movie barons like Warner. How could they keep unreliable but creative oddballs like Dean and Dean's heroes, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, in front of their adoring public while still maintaining control over their stars' images? (Warner/Rydell goes wonderfully apoplectic when Dean gives a movie magazine a quote suggesting he may be bisexual.)
Dean obliged such Hollywood establishment unease by dying in a car crash in 1955. The night after James Dean airs, there's a curio called The James Dean Story at 8 p.m. on Turner Classic Movies. The 1957 documentary is the first feature film Altman directed. Apparently influenced by the era's Beat-poetry rhythms, he unreels a fractured, kooky sketch of the actor's life, using the stentorian tones of narrator Martin Gabel, who delivers loopy insights like ''He looked at the ocean and he envied it its power'' and ''His appetites were large but they were never quite filled.'' (Hey, is that code for being bi?)
While Altman's documentary makes the (awkwardly phrased) announcement that all of its interviewees are ''portrayed by the people themselves,'' it's not nearly as revealing as Rydell's movie, which concludes with the words ''Most of this film was based on fact; some was an educated guess.'' This summer more than ever, we know that artistic guesswork nearly always trumps trite reality.