James Dean -- still hot, still dead.
“The beam becomes my dream / My dream is on the screen / Dusty frames that still arrive died in 1955 / Fade away and radiate”
—Blondie, “Fade Away and Radiate”
Who was James Dean? The rebel icon from Eisenhower’s America seems frozen in myth. Yet Dean’s intense method acting had a profound affect on American cinema over the last 50 years. Dean’s influence is still remarkably persistent. In last year’s box office smash Star Trek, Chris Pine shamelessly mimics Dean in his portrayal of a young Captain Kirk.
Dean’s star never fades, his brief career consisting of that holy trinity of films: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant . A fatal car crash in a silver Porsche was his final act, immortality followed.
Every few years we get a biopic on Dean, but the gold standard was set in the 1976 film, James Dean. Stephen McHattie’s performance in the title role reveals a charismatic, shape-shifting persona. Based on a screenplay by William Bast (Dean’s best friend and roommate), the film crackles with first-hand authenticity, love, and grief.
The latest biopic on DVD is James Dean, Race With Destiny, originally filmed in 1997. Casper Van Dien, best known as Rico in Starship Troopers plays a stiff, robotic Dean. The story is told from the point-of-view of Dean’s girlfriend, Pier Angeli (Carrie Mitchum).
The best sequence in Race With Destiny comes early, when Dean is introduced to Angeli’s traditional Italian family. It’s clear that Mama Angeli (Diane Ladd) doesn’t approve of Pier’s new boyfriend.
Mama Angeli: My girls are going to be good homemakers and wonderful wives… for responsible and dignified husbands with real jobs—professionals, not actors.
Dean: Mind if I take off my jacket? It’s getting hot in here.
Just a few scenes later, Angeli sneaks out of the house and has sex with Dean in his apartment. The shift is jarring but interesting—a young woman from a traditional, immigrant family goes her own way and ignores an overbearing mother. This plotline has dramatic potential and Diane Ladd is convincing as a controlling, manipulative mother.
Dean’s biography has been dramatized and retold many times, but Angeli’s tragic story has not. A promising young actress of the ‘50s, Angleli divorced twice and eventually committed suicide. Her story is worth telling, with her doomed romance to Dean as the focal point.
The breakup scene between Dean and Angeli occurs less than halfway through the film. Set in a thunderstorm, the scene is overwrought yet effective:
Dean: Pier, please, you gotta forgive me, if I did anything,,,
Angeli: Oh Jimmy, just let me go.
Dean: But why, what did I do?
Angeli: This isn’t about me, it’s my family.
Dean: What family? It’s your goddamned mother.
Angeli: (she slaps him).
The first half of Race With Destiny is uneven at best, yet it has a coherent plot, the story anchored on the Dean-Angeli romance. In the second half, Angeli disappears and the film unravels. Without her, the film loses its only unique thread. The plot eventually splinters into a jumble of unrelated scenes in a rehash of Dean’s final year.
In addition, the filmmakers get careless. While Dean is on the set of Rebel Without A Cause, Natalie Wood is depicted as a sex kitten. Actually, Wood was only 16-years-old at the time, and contemporary accounts describe how Dean and other cast members were protective of ‘Nat’ and treated her like a kid sister.
Dean’s father abandoned him at an early age, yet the film shows a reconciliation of sorts between the two men. Dean was much closer to his aunt and uncle who raised him in Indiana, yet the Winslows are never mentioned in the film. Dean lived with both William Bast and Dizzy Sheridan, yet they’re not mentioned, either.
For those familiar with Dean’s life and career, the omission of his family (the Winslows), best friend (Bast) and lover (Sheridan) is telling. Dean is depicted as a man without a past or a future, and the people who loved him are conveniently forgotten. It seems the writers didn’t know where to go at the script’s halfway point and winged it from there. The result is a messy, half-baked film.
There’s a superficial gloss to the entire enterprise. Race With Destiny never hints at Dean’s bisexuality, the writers content to portray Dean as the ultimate biker dude, and hey let’s not confuse the audience with any homoerotic intrigue. In Bast’s 1976 screenplay, Dean’s sexual ambiguity is dealt with openly and honestly, which only adds to his complex and strange allure.
Race With Destiny extras include a trailer and a deleted scene with Dean on the rebound having shower sex with Ursula Andress. The scene is surprisingly erotic and should have been included in the weaker second half of the film.