James Dean would have been 70 this year, but he drove fast and died young, leaving the most beautiful kind of corpse — one made of color and light, fixed in time and permanently on display, an animated icon of martyred post-adolescence. The crash that killed him fused him forever with the roles he played, blew him up into something bigger than mere life ever could have, and put his face on a thousand pieces of memorial junk for sale right here on Hollywood Boulevard, ladies and gentlemen, step this way. He sits with Marilyn and Elvis in a holy trinity of pop agelessness, his life endlessly examined and his actuality increasingly veiled, ever less a person who could ever have turned 70. (He turns 70 as a 24-year-old.) The TV movie — TNT’s James Dean, starring Freaks and Geeks’ James Franco — was only a matter of time.
Although it’s an inherently limiting form, bound as it is to (more or less) following the facts, and rarely successful as either art or history, the celebrity biopic is much beloved by television networks and production companies — it’s a way to share the magic, and some pre-sold estimable fraction of the audience, of a big, unavailable subject. As such things go, James Deanis an unusually intelligent job that benefits from the relative modesty of its production and straightforward direction. (Wearing the jodhpurs is Mark Rydell, who made On Golden Pond and The Rose, and who co-stars here, with refreshingly little bluster, as Jack Warner. Israel Horovitz, a bona-fide award-winning Broadway playwright, wrote the screenplay.) The film isn’t weighted down with high style and histrionics; not every line of dialogue is leaden with exposition, not every incident portentously historical; and here and there, for a brief passing moment, one can imagine oneself a time-transported fly on the wall. One feels: Well, it may have happened this way. The picture also benefits from Dean’s early demise; with less ground to cover, it’s less frantic, less violently episodic, than many such films — scenes run long, and proceed at a leisurely pace — though even so it leaves out much, much more than it crams in.
The whole business is strained through a big theme, which is that Dean was a lonely boy who spent his life looking for a father, and it is as good a theme as any, and possibly better than most, and it is convenient (though coincidental) that two of the three characters he played in the movies were looking for a father, too. It may even be true, though the filmmakers cheat a little — an “educated guess” is how they describe their embroidery — in order to give their story shape. We’re trained (by books and movies and newspapers and possibly our parents) to view life as a narrative, a story with an arc, with acts, with a thrust and, ultimately, a meaning; but life, though we may try to fit ourselves to those fictional conventions, is . . . omnidirectional, a metanarrative, a tangled web, one of those tricky Alan Ayckbourn plays played in three theaters simultaneously. It doesn’t conform to the conventions of storytelling, and there is a sense in which any sort of biography — and all biographies are selective, hypothetical, interpretive — is an insult to the life as lived, even when framed as a tribute. James Deanis overall a fair and sympathetic work, especially given the sort of muck dredged up by more recent Dean scholars (there are allusions here to his bisexuality, but none of that “human ashtray” stuff), but it’s still a fantasy.
Franco, who was so good as high school fringe dweller Daniel Desario on Freaks and Geeks — it’s a testament to his acting that he wasn’t more specifically Dean-like there — is good again here. (Where have they gone, those Freaks, those Geeks? What is Martin Starr up to? Where is Busy Philipps?) In the spirit of the rest of the film, it’s a humble, small performance pegged to the little human guy inside the sacred monster; Franco is most persuasive, really, at his most matter of fact and offhanded, delivering a line like “It’s got 200 horsepower, 1,300 cc engine, dual Solex carbs . . . the whole body’s made of aluminum so it weighs about 1,100 pounds,” as he shows off his new death car. It’s a risky business, of course, for an actor to impersonate a more famous, more successful actor, let alone one commonly called a genius and one whose own work and particular charisma are there to see for anyone who knows how to work a video store. He can’t measure up; by definition, he can only try to shape himself to the shell. Failure is built into the assignment. But Franco fails as nobly as any actor could. May he now proceed to his own, original success.
Herbert George Wells, the author of The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, along with interesting political works I am well-educated enough to know exist but not enough to have read, is the hero, logically enough, of The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells, a six-hour miniseries that next week launches the Hallmark Channel (formerly the Odyssey Channel), new home to the collected works of producers Robert Halmi Sr. and Jr. (Moby Dick, Animal Farm, A Christmas Carol, The Odyssey and so on). Unlike James Dean, this is no biopictograph, being based primarily on a selection of Wells’ short science fiction, into which the author’s own young self (as impersonated by heroically handsome Tom Ward) has been inserted, along with the equally historical, equally romanticized Amy “Jane” Robbins (the lovely-plucky Katy Carmichael), for whom he has eyes. That in the life we call real Wells was (in one unkind observer’s words) a “dumpy little man” with a famously high squeaky voice, and that the shy romantic presented here was in actuality a practicing advocate of “free love,” does not matter much, since nothing else about the series is remotely plausible, and the matinee-idol/Saturday-serial version is, for the purposes of popular entertainment, a lot more satisfying.
I’m not usually a fan of the Halmis’ invariably handsome but frequently irritating productions — Halmi Sr. especially is a man who loves the classics but can’t resist fiddling with them, a kind of sentimental postmodernist fond of tacked-on framing devices and interpolated themes (his Alice in Wonderland was about . . . stage fright). But I have this time been quite completely charmed; possibly it is because I am ill-acquainted with the originals, and feel no need to defend them from abuse. Certainly the producers (with series creator Nick Willing and writers Chris Harrald, Clive Exton, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet) are messing with literature again, and in ways that a Wells purist, or even half-purist, would on literary and factual grounds find objectionable. (It is occasionally objectionable even without reference to Wells.) But as a love story, detective story, sci-fi story, The Infinite Worlds is touching, rousing, suspenseful, and great, not entirely thoughtless fun. Ward and Carmichael make a particularly attractive couple; in their paranormal investigations and slow-burning mutual attraction, they’re Scully and Mulder in a late-Victorian X-Files, surrounded by the blustery supporting characters and Dickensian eccentrics that are the stock-in-trade of English popular fiction and TV shows. (I think of all the strange little people of The Avengers, and there is as well a bit of Steed and Emma about Wells and Jane.) And there are the cute accents, the formal attitudes, the high collars and top hats, the whole nine yards of the Masterpiece Theatre aesthetic (albeit Halmi is an American, born and raised in Hungary). I feel almost a fool, an impressionable Yankee rube, for falling for it all so easily. But I did. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to spend time within a television show whose characters use words like sanguine and pusillanimous not for snob effect, but simply because they’re the right words to use. It feels like a holiday.
© Robert Lloyd 2001 and 2011