Perhaps the conventions of television are to blame - the necessity for melodrama and the incapacity to portray a genuine wild child in all his glory on basic cable. (Kudos, however, for the lone ass shot.) Like the lives of other Hollywood notables whose lives have been chronicled on film, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra for example, James Dean's existence is most easily sold in his more personal moments - the rumored sexual encounters and the troubled nights. But, being as it is on channel 36 (in my town, at any rate), none of these escapades and experiences can be adequately chronicled in their entirety. To their credit, the filmmakers never went so far as to ignore these events, making a few not-so-subtle allusions to their presence in Dean's life, but I find it hard to believe that his bi-sexuality, for example, could not have been adequately covered in a discreet fashion. It is, after all, what the masses truly want to see.
And what of the minority? If the masses truly wish to see the melodrama in all its glory, then what of those who prefer to appreciate the quality of the great James Dean's actual work? Personally, I felt that the best scenes in James Dean were those that took the time to deal with his acting, or at least his relationships with others in the business. The scheming with Elia Kazan was remarkably well handled, but what of his intense involvement in the production of Rebel Without A Cause? There are those who believe the Dean's contributions to (arguably) his greatest movie genuinely warranted a co-directing credit, but apart from a single scene from the production we get absolutely nothing of his work on said film. If nothing else, I would have loved a glimpse of his preparation for his "You're tearing me apart" scene, before which he holed himself up in his trailer, getting progressively drunker and drunker, and listening to "Night of the Valkries" as loud as his record player would go - and then proceeding to nail the scene in one single take.
Similarly, although I applaud the inclusion of his relationship with a then unbelievably young Martin Landau, what did we truly learn about their relationship? Only that they were friends. The movie may be titled James Dean, but supporting characters need development, as well. On a similar note, the screenwriters make constant references to Dean's appreciation of the performances of Marlon Brando… but they never meet. For two characters in a biographical film to be so closely connected on a historical level (arguably the two greatest male actors of the 1950s), and mentioned so easily in the same sentence during the movie, not to have a single scene together is simply a tragedy. James Dean had two climaxes apparent from the get-go: the heart-to-heart talk with his father, and the one we never get to see, the meeting of the two giants. Whether or not the unwritten scene in question actually occurred would of course be a moot point. I am reminded of other Hollywood biopics that operated on similar conceits. Ed Wood inspirational chance encounter with Orson Welles - the world's greatest director and the world's worst, both with the same unsolvable problem. Or perhaps my personal favorite, RKO 281's unlikely confrontation of a young Welles with William Randolph Hearst… young upstart Welles thoroughly smug that his Citizen Kane will be released, and Hearst, genuinely defeated for the first time in his life, contented that he will have the last laugh. Welles last line to the media giant, paraphrasing, "Kane would have taken the tickets!" was easily the greatest line in the entire film. In turn, a scene between Marlon Brando and James Dean should have been nothing less than perfect.
Criticisms aside, James Dean deserves credit for at least recognizing that it is important to preserve Hollywood history while it is still in its infancy, even if its effectiveness at doing so is in question. It hasn't been much more than a century since the medium of film was invented, and already there are entire works that are lost to future generations forever. Within the next ten or fifteen years, we will have lost forever the last of our old film stars. After all, how many are still around to tell their tales? Hepburne, Peck, Wilder, de Havilland… whether the docudramas are good or bad, the necessity to capture the lives of these shining stars while they can still contribute is unquestionably strong. Of course, documentaries are important to concoct as well, but there is a distinct poetry to creating another old-fashioned film out of one of these great film stars. One cannot help but ask how vital such individuals as Martin Landau and Elia Kazan were to the production of James Dean, and although I certainly know not the answer, my speculation is that their influence was certainly very powerful indeed.
During one of the (frequent) commercial breaks from James Dean, my mother mentioned very potently that, someday, I would be her age and watching a television biopic about Jennifer Aniston. For all the young film students and even the casual viewers of the cinema, this is a thought worth considering. How long will it be before Britney Spears will be considered a part of media history - and what part will history say she played? Did the teenagers who idolized and adored Dean realize at the time how important a figure he would become, or how much more readily recognized his name would be than other heartthrobs like Sal Mineo or even Montgomery Clift? How will the stars of today fit into the Hollywood biographies of tomorrow? What future actors will have single-scene cameos portraying Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss in the television biography of Keanu Reeves, with some kid who's just been cast in the remake of Spider-Man starring as the lead?
Hollywood, for all its concern about image and style, seems too often to forget that these actors are making up history as they go along, and that every divorce, every affair and every film that gets made and dropped into the doldrums of January will be considered by yet another wannabe film critic, occupying valuable bandwidth on whatever information system will come along and replace the internet. And these little personal and professional mishaps will be the subject of important-sounding run-on sentences that no one may ever read, but will more likely than not be true. The past, to put it concisely, is now. If we don't decide what it is then someday someone will do the job for us. The chronicles of Tom and Nicole's divorce today… would these tabloids be taken as fact? Or would they be discounted in favor of some crystal clear logic that will only be available in hindsight? Did James Dean worry about any of these things? Or the amorous Errol Flynn?
At the heart of any discussion of celebrity lives and biographies is, of course, the very reason why we find them so fascinating in the first place. Why do we read about the recent affairs of Matt Damn and Ben Affleck and not the marital indiscretions of our local grocer? In short, we love and idolize celebrities because they are more than normal. They live the dreams of monetary success, sexual liberation and worldwide acclaim that all of us "normal people" have. And in spite of the fact that these people are famous because they are the exception to the rule - more Hollywood dreams are dissipated than come true - we saturate ourselves with their private moments. We lead surrogate lives through them. As a result of surrounding ourselves with their intimate activities, they indeed become that local grocer about which we couldn't give a damn. We move on to resent their success instead of finding liberation through it, and all too often find ourselves rejoicing when their dreams become nightmares. "Robert Downey, Jr. is on drugs again? Well it serves him right." Of course it does… The question remains, of course: Would we watch a movie about him?
Celebrities of today fail to achieve the iconic status of the Deans and Monroes of yesteryear because we are aware of their private lives as they are lived, not through historical record. The names Marilyn and John are rarely mentioned in separate sentences today, but at the time of the infamous affair there were no exposes, no inquisitions. Subjects like James Dean's bi-sexuality may have been alluded to in the press, but would a picture of Dean accompanied by the insinuating title "I've Got A Secret" be placed on the cover of one of America's best-selling magazines? Never. The shock and historical significance of these events is very much akin to the fall from Eden - we worshipped Hollywood, but fed too eagerly from its tree of knowledge. As such, we can never go back to its iconic status. (See, if you will, the amount of respect President Bush receives, compared to that of any - ANY - president before Richard Nixon.)
The Hollywood icons, as stated earlier, are dying out. Soon, we will be left with only our Madonnas and Downeys… stars, to be sure, but lacking the dignity that came with being a star in the Golden Age of Hollywood. The unfortunate deaths of Brandon Lee or River Phoenix were equated with that of James Dean, but were they truly comparable? Has anyone achieved the level of Godhood that we attribute to our old acting heros, be they a boisterous Barrymore or a drug-addled Mitchum? Perhaps not… And when these people are gone, who will be left to remember them? How will they be remembered in the first place? Their work will live on, but their lives will be the subject of tell-all books and biopics. These will be the historical records that, fact or fiction, future audiences will take notice of. It is the responsibility of filmmakers both present and future to provide the lives of the great icons of the 20th century with not just melodrama, but historical context as well.
James Dean was a good movie that could have been great. It suffers from the lack of a spinal column, both narratively and philosophically. The life of James Dean may be unaffected by movies about his life, be they good or bad, but future generations' opinions of him will be. Watching the film would have made a young Lazlo Hollyfeld truly question why Dean was important to Hollywood at all. Showing only his rise to success, not what truly got him there - his acting and his contrast to his peers (specifically Brando) - slights not only the film, not only audiences, but the future generations of filmgoers who will be basing their opinions on a made for television biopic.
There has been a lot of speculation in recent years about what the responsibility of a filmmaker truly is. This responsibility certainly exists, but it doesn't end (or even arguably begin) at public safety, i.e. censorship. Rather, filmmakers have a responsibility to preserve their artistic medium of choice, and the fragile history that belongs to it. The life of James Dean may be adequate fodder for historical drama, but more importantly it will always be a key component of filmmaking history: The story of a man who along with Marlon Brando changed the way actors performed onscreen, forever, and who touched a generations of youths by simply being one of them. By being cut down in his prime, we didn't simply lose an actor or a Hollywood playboy, we lost the ability to see him grow up with us - and so he remains the iconic teenager, the immortal tortured soul captured on camera. This is why he was filmed in the first place; I'm not sure James Dean captured that.