Reluctantly, I came late in the day to the 2001 television film, “James Dean,” sensing James Franco’s portrayal of the great actor could not possibly live up to the real thing. While I was right on that score, two historical questions kept me engaged last night as I watched for the first time director Mark Rydell’s hollow interpretation of Dean’s life.
The first question: What was Dean’s sexuality? Was he gay? Or was he straight or somewhere in between?
The second: Why was Dean’s relationship with his father so strained and what effect did it have on his life and acting career?
For the record, Dean died at age 24 in a car crash on September 30, 1955, near Cholame, CA, after rocketing to fame with only three films under his belt: “East of Eden”, “Rebel Without A Cause” and “Giant.” His legend lives on still 59 years later. He would have been 83 years old now.
Dean’s sexuality has long been in question. Just two years ago, the best-done of the Dean bio films, “Joshua Tree, 1951,” portrayed the actor as gay. Although it is of no importance to me other than in a historical sense, I was eager to see the take given to the subject in “James Dean” by director Rydell and writer Israel Horowitz.
Two scenes stand out.
One occurs at a bar. Dean and fellow-actor Martin Landau are having drinks. Both are unemployed. A “producer” approaches Dean about a TV role and invites him to a party that night. “Come late,” Dean is told. Landau rolls his eyes and tells Dean the guy is gay and infers the invite is a “casting couch,” sex for possible career favors. Dean knows this but goes to the party anyway. He is seen entering the gay man’s apartment. From what we see, it is an all-male party. End of scene. We are left to decide what happens, but Dean’s career soon takes off.
The second scene shows Dean having sex with the so-called love of his life, the actress Pier Angeli, at his seaside home near Los Angeles. To my mind the sex scene was a heavy-handed attempt to make Dean appear heterosexual above all. Nowhere else in “James Dean” did the actor seem to have sexual interest in women. Certainly not with his friend, the actress Christine White.
The film’s verdict: Dean was perhaps bi-sexual, having male relationships when his career and huge ambitions came to bear. But primarily he was heterosexual. Ho-hum.
That said, the primary aim of “James Dean” is to imagine what caused the rift between Dean and his father, Winton, and later repercussions.
The actor is envisioned as angry and confused about his paternal relationship. In a flashback to his childhood, Dean’s search for love is rejected by his father time and again. And later, in Freudian moments, Dean is seen attempting to kiss men. In an improvised scene in “East of Eden,” Dean attempts to plant one on the startled actor Raymond Massey, who plays the father who rebuffs him. And at the end of a serious discussion with studio boss Jack Warner, Dean lands a kiss on the forehead. Rydell sees the father-son ordeal as central to Dean’s core. It is what makes him tick. It is what makes him the actor he was.
Throughout the film Dean is rejected by his father. But, shortly before the finale, the car-crash scene that ended the actor’s life, Dean and Winton reconcile in a teary, over-wrought scene. The father reveals the cause of his frigid feelings for his son this way:
Dean’s beloved mother had an affair and unbeknownst to Winton was pregnant when he married her. Winton had his suspicions Dean was not really his son, and he could not come to grips with the lie. Later, on her deathbed when Dean was 9, the wife confessed to her husband. This scene was not based on fact, but only offers Rydell’s view of what probably happened.
But I can think of another, that Winton possibly saw his son as a budding homosexual and was repelled by the thought. After all, this was conservative, Christian-right Indiana shortly before World War II.
In any case, the film does little to give a new understanding of the actor’s life. It is by and large the same old stuff.
The mystery of James Dean’s personal life lives on.