James Dean [2001]

Shortly after James Dean died in a car crash, Robert Altman and George W. George (son of Rube Goldberg) set out to document the young star's brief life. The results are mixed. The narration (written by Stewart Stern, who wrote Rebel Without a Cause and befriended Dean) tries to get beyond the public image of Dean as the cool rebel to show the lonely young man underneath. It's a bit overwrought, but that's understandable, given the strong emotions Dean elicited from those who knew and loved him. But Martin Gabel is all wrong as narrator; his stentorian delivery turns the hot-blooded musings of youth into ponderous, pompous pronouncements totally lacking in humor. The most interesting element is the people of Fairmont, Indiana, where Dean grew up--straightforward, direct, and proud of Dean not for the fame he attracted but for who he was. The Bells of Cockaigne is an early appearance from Dean's days in television in New York. He plays the father of a sick child who gambles his week's pay to try to earn enough to take his son "somewhere warm and dry." Gene Lockhart is the stubborn old Irishman who ultimately gives up his own dreams to help Dean. This half-hour program (complete with ads) was live TV; the kinescope is of questionable quality, but already Dean shows some of the talent and charisma of his later work.--Geof Miller

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