Dreadfulsome

James Dean flick's sublime badness is inspiring

What a relief it is to see a movie like James Dean: Race With Destiny.
It had begun to feel as if the bad movie were dead--not gone, of course; as long as there are movies, most of them will be crummy.

But in recent years, movie badness has been lifeless. It's been somber, dreary mediocrity or overproduced inanity or hollow technical sophistication, timid drama or feeble, dispirited comedy, or, now and then, flat-out hatefulness. The modern "ironic" pose seemed to have ended the days when bad movies, sometimes more than good ones, came with a sense of fun and audacious showmanship.

But James Dean: Race With Destiny can take its place without shame beside The Greek Tycoon or Airport '77. It's got it all--the slumming stars, the howlingly insipid dialogue and, most important, the utter, confident sincerity. It's the least ironic movie you'll see all year, and it's not just bad; it is, in both the modern and archaic senses of the word, awful: Its badness inspires awe. It's almost refreshing, somehow.

The film focuses on James Dean's tortured relationship with the true love of his life--among women, at least--the Italian actress turned Hollywood starlet Pier Angeli, who narrates the tale of woe. Our story begins in 1954, with Dean meeting Angeli on the Warner lot while he's starring in East of Eden and she's playing opposite Paul Newman in The Silver Chalice (a legendary bad movie in its own right).

Dean catches sight of Angeli, falls flat on his back, and this sparkling exchange ensues:

Jimmy: You knocked me off my feet!
Pier: Me! I deed not touch you!
Jimmy: Your beauty did! Lovely . . . and beautiful!

Dean is played by Casper Van Dien, who stars in the upcoming film version of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. A cynic might suggest that Race With Destiny, a film with "direct to video and late-night cable" written all over it, would have been unlikely to find theatrical distribution at all without the possibility of riding the coattails of Van Dien's incipient publicity buildup. In any case, he does sort of resemble Dean, though with an Aryan, Rutger Hauer streak. Resemblance isn't everything, though. As, at best, a mild admirer of Dean, I can still assert that, as an actor, Van Dien is to Dean as, say, Luke Perry is to Nicolas Cage.

Angeli is played by Van Dien's real-life wife Carrie Mitchum, the perfectly stunning granddaughter of the late, lamented Robert. The younger Mitchum fully warrants Dean's praise--she is, truly, both lovely and beautiful.

The real fun is in the supporting cast. Carrie's granddad gave his final performance in the small role of George Stevens, director of Giant. He was probably only doing it as a favor to the kid, and he looks sadly ill, but he's well-cast--he rather resembles Stevens, and, as a great actor, he's fit to play a great director.

Spiking much higher on the insane-o-meter is Mike Connors as Jack Warner. Hearing Mannix himself deliver the line "Meshugana bastard!" is one of the film's richest rewards, surpassing even the scene in which Dean gently rebuffs a bashful pass from Sal Mineo during the making of Rebel Without a Cause. Casey Kasem, Joseph Campanella and Connie Stevens turn up in smaller roles.

Worst-accent honors go to Diane Ladd as "Momma Pierangeli." Carrie Mitchum's accent is on about the level of a sophomore drama major in The Rose Tattoo, but Ladd's is nowhere near that good.

Momma Pierangeli schemes to steer her daughter away from Dean and into the arms of her favorite, singer Vic Damone. All this is true, or fairly true--Angeli, who died youngish herself, did choose "Veek" over her beloved "Chimmy," though the marriage lasted only a few years. Enraged at his rival, the movie's Dean howls to Angeli: "You stood me up! And for what--this pasta-head?"

Much is made in the film of Dean's love of sports cars. George Barris, customizer of the "Spyder Porsche," gets his own opening-title credit. Among Dean's sufferings, the unreasonable demand of Jack Warner that he not drive like a maniac, endangering himself and others, appears to have been just barely second in intensity to losing Pier.

"Fast cars and fast women" is a phrase I've heard to denote the proper interests of a cool guy. But the production notes for Race With Destiny mention Dean's reputed liking for "fast food and faster women."

Say, I've always been rather partial to fast food myself. Does that mean I'm cool, like James Dean?

James Dean: Race With Destiny
Directed by Mardi Rustam; with Casper Van Dien, Carrie Mitchum, Diane Ladd, Mike Connors, Robert Mitchum, Casey Kasem and Connie Stevens.

Unrated.

 
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