TV Eye

How to Make a Giant

A legend is born: James Franco stars as James Dean in TNT's new biopic.
A legend is born: James Franco stars as James Dean in TNT's new biopic.

James Dean died four years before I was born, so by the time I knew who he was, he was already a legend. I saw his movies, but didn't really understand how deeply he spoke to a generation of post-World War II young people. To me, he seemed peculiar and cool, tough but strangely vulnerable. He smoked cigarettes in that way that made it look sexy and as necessary as breathing. He seemed to be a man of few words -- not because he didn't have them, but because he didn't need them.

There are two upcoming TV opportunities to learn about James Dean. One is the new TNT biopic. The second is a documentary about the young actor, made just two years after his death. Each provides a distinct version of the actor and a meditation on the forging of meaning and memory.

James Franco (Freaks and Geeks) stars as Dean in the TNT movie written by Israel Horovitz (Sunshine) and directed by Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond, The Rose). Franco's resemblance to Dean lures the viewer into the film, and the young actor turns in a studied performance. But Franco shines in small, unexpected moments that transcend the hair, the make-up, and the hipster clothes to reveal the quirky, visceral honesty that made Dean both frightening and appealing.

As a biopic, James Dean is a laudable contribution to the genre, though lapses into TV movie-of-the-week conventions take the edge off what could have been a wholly compelling movie. Sound and background music are good when they are unobtrusive, and great when they brand a film. John Frizzell's music, though lovely, is so emotionally prescriptive it made me wish I'd seen a less "sweetened" version of the film.

The point of view of James Dean is that the actor was deeply wounded by the death of his mother when he was only 9 years old and by his relationship with his emotionally distant father, Winton Dean (Michael Moriarty). It sounds trite, but as a young man in his 20s, he would have barely had the chance to unpack that baggage.

In a postscript, the film purports to rely on facts and "educated guesses." I couldn't help wondering if the final scene with Winton and his son was factual or assumed, and regardless of which, if it couldn't have been underwritten so as not to make its point like a sharp stick poked in the eye. Thankfully, Michael Moriarty's measured performance rescues the film from being overwrought -- but just barely. In fact, there are several overwritten scenes. (Dean as a child accompanying his mother's body to Indiana for burial is another.) The script's bald need to make sure the viewer "gets" Dean (along with a gloppy dose of the maudlin background music mentioned earlier) deflates the emotion of the scenes and the potential poignancy of the movie.

My guess is that James Dean preaches to the choir, but doesn't create a tether for new audiences to understand the mystique of the actor.

James Dean premieres Sunday, Aug. 5, 7pm on TNT. Encores follow at 9pm and 11pm that night, and then on Aug. 10-12, Aug. 16, and Aug. 22. Check listings for air times.

Perhaps the best way to understand James Dean is to see his work. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) hosts a James Dean Festival on Monday, Aug. 6, featuring two of Dean's famous films, 1955's Rebel Without a Cause and 1956's Giant. (East of Eden marked his only other starring role.) But the most intriguing offering of the festival is the 1957 documentary, The James Dean Story, by Robert Altman (his directorial debut) and George W. George.

Made just two years after Dean's death, the documentary relies on interviews with Dean's family and friends, and on "a dynamic exploration of the still photograph." Unlike the TNT biopic, Altman's documentary explores the formation of James Dean as an artist, his love of poetry, drawing, and music, and even shows Dean in a dance class (he apparently trained with dance great Katherine Dunham).

Altman's black-and-white film is visually arresting. Together with the script by Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause), the documentary is obviously influenced by the Beat poets, mired as it is in a Beat sensibility that can swerve from self-indulgence to sharp insight on a dime. A distinctive voiceover narration by Martin Gabel offers many over-the-top (but hugely entertaining) reflections on Dean: "He looked at the ocean and was jealous of it ... suddenly, he knew as an actor, he could be the ocean, and flood everything with his power."

The James Dean Story airs Aug. 6 at 7 and 10:30pm on TCM. Rebel Without a Cause airs at 8:30pm, and Giant airs at midnight. Check listings to confirm air times.

E-mail Belinda Acosta at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More TV Eye
TV Eye: That's What She Said
TV Eye: That's What She Said
After 10 years in print, 'TV Eye' has its series finale

Belinda Acosta, July 8, 2011

TV Eye: Go LoCo
TV Eye: Go LoCo
Awards, and a word about what's on the horizon for 'TV Eye'

Belinda Acosta, July 1, 2011


James Dean, James Franco, Michael Moriarty, Robert Altman, The James Dean Story, Rebel Without a Cause, George W. George, Giant, East of Eden, Stewart Stern, Mark Rydell, Israel Horovitz, John Frizzell

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle