Nicholas Ray, who directed James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, remembers a Sunday afternoon months before they had even begun to make the movie, when Dean dropped in on Ray and sat in a corner giving Clifford Odets the silent treatment. Ray went to the kitchen to mix drinks, leaving the two of them alone together. Later, Odets reported on how their chat had gone: "I'm a son of a bitch," said Dean. Why is that? Odets wondered. "Well," said Dean, "here I am, you know, in this room. With you. It's fantastic. Like meeting Ibsen or Shaw."
To Ray, Odets confessed, it was one of the nicest things anybody had ever said to him. Never mind whether Odets deserved it. The surprise is that Dean was conversant in Ibsen and Shaw. Of course we know that actors read -- they have to memorize their parts. We may also know that Dean went to college for a bit, at UCLA, where his father insisted he major in business. And it stands to reason that in his Actors Studio days in New York in the early fifties, before his two-week triumph in a Broadway version of Andre Gide's The Immoralist, he must have read serious literature, or at least pretended to just to keep up with all the other high-strung types in febrile bohemia. To be sensitive in the fifties was, almost by definition, to be a reader.
But the James Dean myth, like Brando's, is otherwise muscle-bound, even anti-intellectual -- feelings rather than ideas, velocity rather than scholarship, motorcycles, bullfighting, bongo drums, and a gun under the pillow instead of a book. The only book mentioned in either James Dean, a well-done docudrama starring James Franco from Freaks and Geeks, or The James Dean Story, a ludicrous 1957 memorial of passing interest only because it was Robert Altman's first film, is his childhood favorite, The Little Prince. Onscreen, Dean specialized in being gauche, defenseless, and misunderstood, as if the inability to articulate were a proof of caring too much, of purity of suffering; in a self-consciousness whose only expressive mode was a twitch, followed by a howl. He hurt in public. Pain was his element, his weather, his product.
He was a hero of our very own need. Nora Sayre spoke of "the ringed eyes, sunken as a lemur's," the face that dissolved like smoke, and the curling up, like a turtle or a fetus. And then the wounded animal would strike back. Against whom? Against the family, of course. These were the psychoanalytic fifties. (Before it became a film, Rebel Without a Cause was a nonfiction book about juvenile delinquency, by the psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner.) Families were always at fault. Boys were bad because they hadn't been loved. A loveless childhood also explained why they were always soliciting pity by caressing objects. And themselves.
Franco's Dean is remarkable. Except for the eyes, he has got it all -- the duck, the wince, the somersault, the bravura, and the cigarette hanging out of the mouth like a fuse. And director Mark Rydell and screenwriter Israel Horovitz have done the legend proud -- from Winton Dean, the cold father (Michael Moriarty) who sent the 9-year-old boy back to his aunt and uncle on the family farm in Indiana after the death of his mother; to the New York apprenticeship with young friends like Martin Landau (Sam Gould) and Method mentors like Elia Kazan (Enrico Colantoni); to the two years and three movies in Hollywood before the sports-car crash that killed him at age 24. Along the way we will encounter Nicholas Ray (Barry Primus), George Stevens (Craig Barnett), Julie Harris (Wendy Benson), Raymond Massey (Edward Herrmann), James Whitmore (David Parker), and, of course, Pier Angeli (Valentina Cervi), his one great love, who married Vic Damone instead. Rydell even casts himself as Jack Warner, a happy, flamboyant choice.
Whether, as James Dean suggests, Winton was so hostile to young Jimmy because he suspected another man was his real father, I neither know nor care. The young today would be insulted if we thought we understood them. If Kurt Cobain had to listen to Martin Gabel's portentous narration of The James Dean Story -- "if he hadn't been bad, she wouldn't have died on him . . . he saw a dead bird in the sand, and wept for it" -- he would have offed himself all over again.
State of the Planet With David Attenborough (August 1; 8 to 11 p.m.; Discovery) hits the trail from London to Africa to Ecuador to Hawaii, finding the occasional new species (like the black-faced marmoset) but many more extinctions (the Tasmanian tiger, the golden toad, the cluckless Dodo) because of overharvesting, habitat destruction, "islandization," and pollution. There are lessons to be learned from Rwanda's mountain gorillas and Oregon's spotted owls, as well as a warning about rhododendrons.
Wild Iris (August 5; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; Showtime) is a feel-bad movie about the young son (Emile Hirsch) of a suicide who tries to kill himself, the only way he can think of to escape the low-intensity warfare, in a family-owned bridal boutique, between his grandmother (Gena Rowlands), a monster of good intentions and profound denial, and his mother (Laura Linney), who drinks vodka in cans of diet Sprite. To be seen only for the performances of these extraordinary actors, including Miguel Sandoval as a photographer and Lee Tergesen as the owner of the filling station.
Recording The Producers: A Musical Romp With Mel Brooks (August 5; 8 p.m. to whenever, during pledge period; Channel 13) is a Susan Froemke documentary on the cast recording of the album, with Brooks enjoying himself perhaps a tad too much, Nathan Lane in rather a hurry to get it over with, Matthew Broderick shy as always, Cady Huffman simply smashing, and director-choreographer Susan Stroman cheering them on. "Springtime for Hitler" is, even here, a showstopper. But really, folks, some of these songs are a lot better than most of these songs.
From the Waist Down: Men, Women & Music (August 6-10; 10 to 11 p.m.; VH1) is all about dance as a substitute for, equivalent of, or the same thing as sex; from Elvis to Kid Rock to riot grrls and Britney Lolitas. Sometimes I think the cable music channels will do almost anything to avoid playing a single song all the way through.
Sunday, August 5; 8 to 10 p.m.; TNT.
The James Dean Story
Directed by Robert Altman; Monday, August 6; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; TCM.