Saturday, October 3, 2009

FLASHBACK: James Franco and Mark Rydell 2001

Filling giant shoes; Actor James Franco and director Mark Rydell on re-creating James Dean for the small screen

By Amy Amatangelo
Boston Herald
August 5, 2001

EDITOR'S NOTE: Rydell is remembered by soap fans for his memorable stint as Jeff Baker on AS THE WORLD TURNS. Jeff and Penny were one of the first super couples on soaps.

In the opening scenes of the new TNT movie James Dean, airing Sunday at 8 p.m. and again at 10 p.m., midnight and Friday at 8 p.m., actor James Franco stands hunched in the shadows with his head down. As he walks awkwardly toward the light, Franco's depiction of the great movie icon seems hauntingly accurate.

The actor, best known as heartthrob Daniel Desario in FREAKS AND GEEKS, has had a long day on the press junket. When asked by this well-meaning reporter what attracted him to the role of Dean, he sighs heavily. His conversation is sprinkled with stunted phrases, long pauses, one-word answers and audible relief when the interview ends. He's not rude, but he's certainly not forthcoming.

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But it is this recalcitrant and aloof behavior that makes him the perfect Dean. "I was about to abandon the project when I met James Franco," said director Mark Rydell. "James Dean has always been inimitable. Johnny Depp, Leo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt had all flirted with the project, but they were afraid of it. When Jimmy (Franco) walked into the room, my problems were solved. His performance is a miracle."

Rydell knew the real Dean and called him Jimmy; he also refers to Franco as Jimmy, so things get a little confusing. "Mark is the only one who calls me Jimmy," Franco said.

Perhaps that's because Franco reminded everyone of Dean. "Leonard Rosenman, who wrote the score to East of Eden,' called me after he met James Franco and said after 15 minutes of talking, he forgot he was talking to James Franco and thought he was talking to James Dean," Rydell said. "The audition was almost like a therapy session," Franco said. "We talked about my family. I felt extremely comfortable with him, and I'm not usually an open person."

This conversational audition mirrors a scene in the movie that shows Dean's audition for director Elia Kazan. "I was trained by Kazan," Rydell said. He's one of the greatest directors we have. That scene reflects the way a good director evaluates an actor."

Franco was advised against taking the role. "The film had wonderful potential, but put in wrong hands, it could be disastrous. Mark Rydell gave me the assurance that I needed. He worked with Kazan; he knew everybody in the film. He was at New York in this era. In a way, it's his story - an actor coming up in the '50s. If I turned this down, it would be only because of fear on my part."

It's a movie that almost never got made. The project had languished at Warner Bros. since 1992. "The movie business being what it is now, everyone is more interested in special effects and explosions. We could never get it off the ground," Rydell said. "The motion picture industry seems only interested in the 14-year-old audience. This movie is a perfect example of how networks like TNT are making real quality material."

Rydell and Dean were contemporaries during Dean's rise to fame and co-starred in William Inge's first teleplay Glory in the Flower for television's OMNIBUS series. "It's eerie to make a movie in which I have a relationship with every character, except James Dean's parents," said Rydell, who plays studio head Jack Warner in the movie. Dean is depicted as difficult on the set, moody, unpredictable, fiercely loyal and unhappy. "I try to depict the total person. You do yourself a disservice if you don't deal with the truth. I think to tell the truth is the objective," he said.

Rydell feels so strongly that the film ends with the following phrase: "Most of this film was based on fact. Some was an educated guess." "I put a disclaimer in because it is true. There's no sense in pretending. This is the truth with any biography. It's more honorable."

Dean's short life - he died at the age of 24 after only making three films (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant) - has become the basis of legend. Rydell and screenwriter Israel Horovitz chose to frame Dean's life in terms of his relationship with his distant father. "I wanted to tell the truth about what shaped him, a psychological portrait," Rydell said. "The impression he got by his mother's death and his father's rejection was that he was worthless. That's what led to his recklessness - motorcycles, bull riding, car racing - and eventually contributed to his untimely death."

"James Dean had a very active social life, but he was still a fairly lonely person," said Franco. "Especially as a child - the devastation of losing your mother and the added devastation of not having your father there to support you." To tap into this loneliness, Franco didn't speak to his family or friends for the three months of filming.

Franco also watched East of Eden about 75 times. "People had told me that his performance in East of Eden' was the one that was most like him. That the turning away of the father mirrors his life the closest." Franco also spoke with those who actually knew Dean, including his friend Martin Landau and his one-time girlfriend, actress Liz Sheridan. "Speaking with Liz Sheridan and Martin Landau was especially nice because they're both actors. The way they perceive things as actors may be a little different."

"James Franco was unstinting in his research," Rydell said. "He did everything. He talked to everybody. He had a dedication to excellence. Impersonation is not the right word. His performance is almost like channeling. He was able to do it without losing himself. It's his pain, his torment, his joy we feel in the picture, not Jimmy's."

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