James Dean: Race with Destiny begins with its hero in shadow. This is called foreshadowing. Throughout the course of the next 94 minutes, people will tell him repeatedly not to drive too fast. This is called foreshadowing too. The screen goes wavy-gravy to suggest a flashback, and a young woman breathlessly tells him, “You are working on East of Eden!” We know that she and her family members are Italian, because they use words like “bongiorno” and “basta.” The young man smiles cockily. A studio executive talks up the newcomer, saying, “He just won a Tony, on Broadway,” which is sort of like saying, “He just won an Oscar, for movies.” Later someone tells Dean about his work in Giant, “You gave a hell of a performance. You might even get an Academy Award nomination for it.” Jimmy’s thrilled to hear this, but he can’t keep his mind off the girl, whose mother holds power over her, maybe because the woman sounds like Bela Lugosi. Someone warns Jimmy not to drive too fast. A heartrending scene ensues between him and his father, and then Jimmy dies.
This 1997 made-for-TV movie has a number of problems, its biggest being that James Dean could act. In the 1955-56 triptych of East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant, Dean repeatedly punched society in the nose, pulling his body in tight to escape hectoring fuddy-duddy adults and stretching it wide and limber to overpower the squares. When he walked he couldn’t help but take up space, sloping and off-angle, like a spider with a broken leg. He was all rough and craggy grace and electric light, especially when he oh-no smiled. By contrast, Casper Van Dien’s performance as Dean is a spectacle of shit: stepping forward and back, sneering, calling other men pastaheads, a robot block of a guy lurching, one body part at a time. The incompetence is masterful, so much so that it fascinates. Van Dien turns into a transparent image of a man imitating an actor—which, in a way, is what the cult of celebrity is all about.
The weak actor’s presence calls to mind more than just the strong Dean’s 55-year-long absence (he died in a car crash before Giant’s release). It deals with the legend Dean’s image still spawns, to the point where more people likely admire him than have actually seen his films. Much of this legend is due to his early, high-profile death, always a career-capper and legend-securer (cf. Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson). It also helped that he played rebels well on film as a young man (he died at age 24) in movies young people saw; as I recently wrote in a piece about Over the Edge, teens thrive as a moviegoing demographic because so many help define themselves through the people they see on screen. Theirs is the most extreme case of what every person does who goes to the movies.
This raises another issue: an audience’s desire to read stars’ on-screen lives into their lives behind the scenes. I know no more than the average film buff (maybe a contradictory term) about Dean, so when I object to what I sense are many dazzling inaccuracies in the Dean movie, I object more to how they flop before my own personal image of Dean than to how they mudge up the facts. I’ve no special attachment to the actor (none of his movies are their directors’ best films; Dean’s specialty lay in animating static material), but the images I’ve seen of him make me think of him as a rebel—like the movie, I frame the life in terms of the work. The filmmaker Mark Rappaport teases this moviegoer’s habit in films like Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, where he has actors play real-life film stars delivering fictional monologues about their real lives. By stomping the borderline, he’s hitting something innate: We conflate fact and fiction for Brad, Jennifer, etc., I suspect, partly because we turn our own lives into fantasy.
I don’t mean that we dream of being royalty and astronauts, but that these childhood dreams shift themselves onto more mundane jobs. We sometimes forget that actors work too. Like actors studying parts, we work to be the best images of students, teachers, parents, children, and critics we can be. When a movie star fails, either on screen or off, it makes us look better in our roles—safer, too (this is why it’s fun to heap on bad movies). The best and worst thing about this skunk of a movie is that it does nothing to challenge my idea of James Dean, which means it does nothing to challenge my idea of myself.
Someday all DVD producers will figure out where to aim the sound. Until that day comes, we’ll have to deal with competent fuzzy blaring like the kind on this disc. Image tilts to red for interiors and white for exteriors. Not a great restoration, but I doubt the movie looked great to begin with.
One deleted scene. Dean visits a new actress named Ursula, a part seemingly written into the movie so that the actress could show her breasts. Trailer aims for mythology, comes closer to camp.
A ludicrous movie, but I’m glad it exists.