Careers - short, long, and stillborn
Not sure what took so long, but Warner Brothers has finally released The Complete James Dean Collection to a public that is surely eager to acquire it. The wait is odd both because of Dean's great fame and because he only left three movies to reissue, two of which have been on disc for some time.
The newcomer to DVD is East of Eden, a John Steinbeck adaptation that was Dean's first role and one that was a perfect match for his troubled-youth persona. Playing the black sheep in a Cain-and-Abel allegory, the young actor is heartbreaking, full of misdirected energy and desperate for love from a father who's ashamed of him and a mother who is a bigger stain on the family's reputation than he is.
All three of these films - Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant - have qualities to recommend them and rank among the best Hollywood films of their era. But only Rebel (incidentally, the one whose story is set during the time the film was made) remains potent five decades later; its indictment of clueless parents still stings, and its empathy for the American teenager's plight is still relevant. Eden and Giant, despite their compelling stories, have melodramatic aspects that don't hold up as well - although the same could be said of any number of legendary films (Gone With the Wind, for instance) to which they are often compared.
It's a blessing to cinephiles that, in his tragically short life, Dean was cast in three roles this meaty, allowing him to show the world what he was made of before he plowed his sports car into oblivion. Giant strays farthest from the iconic Dean image: He gets to age onscreen, progressing from a sullen young ranch hand to a wealthy oilman with a chip on his shoulder. And, although he was reportedly unsatisfied with his performance, he handles the challenge as well as any other actor has. It's a shame we never got to see Dean's actual middle age - would he have kept his grip better than Brando did? - but what he left on film is well worth preserving.
Dean's co-star in his final two films was a newcomer named Dennis Hopper - an actor who, although he has never stopped working as Brando did, has hardly lived up to the pedigree of his early work. But like some of the odd characters he has played over the years, Hopper has thrown moviegoers a few curve balls: a brilliantly unhinged villain (Blue Velvet) here, a counterculture icon (Easy Rider) there, and so on.
Two of the proudest moments in Hopper's late career are on new-release shelves or will be soon: Hoosiers (MGM), the 1986, small-town basketball film, was recently issued as a two-disc edition full of documentaries, deleted scenes, and commentary. Hopper is brilliant as the drunk who gets a second chance at dignity as Gene Hackman's assistant coach.
The more obscure Carried Away (Lions Gate) moves Hopper out of supporting roles and into the lead. Based on the Jim Harrison novel Farmer, the film is about a middle-age teacher whose life is wonderful until he meets a teenage girl who takes a shine to him. The film is more explicit about sex than viewers might expect, but never for titillation's sake. The setup might be ripe for exploitation, but Carried Away never veers from a humanist fascination with its characters.
It would be wrong to mention Hoosiers this month without also noting the welcome arrival of Hoop Dreams (Criterion), the legendary documentary about two inner-city kids who, during the movie's five-year time span, try to follow basketball to a better life. At almost three hours - fascinating the whole way through - the flick boasts more material than your average doc. And the disc offers two smartly conceived commentaries, one with the filmmakers and one with the film's two subjects watching their lives 10 years later. Criterion fans might be surprised that no bonus feature shows us what the boys are up to now. Fear not: Criterion indeed funded such a project, but director Steve James and company quickly realized that the follow-up deserved to be more than a tacked-on bonus feature. Who knows if the sequel will take five years to make, but someday down the road we'll find out what became of these two dreamers. •
By John DeFore