James Franco: Part 4, James Dean

Next up in this James Franco series following his appearance at London’s ICA, the actor-turned-artist talks about his recent art exhibition, Rebel, inspired by the movie star James Dean and his classic 1950s film, Rebel Without a Cause.

Catch up with my previous James Franco posts on his education and public image, his role in the American soap opera General Hospital, and his early career.

James Franco’s irreverent take on Rebel Without a Cause
I played James Dean in a biopic which was a tribute and an earnest portrayal of the guy he was. It tried to portray the facts of his life in an accurate way, but that’s not what I tried to do with Rebel.

The Rebel show is about the legend, the myths or the public personas of these people and the way those myths have become as concrete or powerful as the facts… they have just as much significance for us now as what really happened.

At this point, who knows what really happened? People will say: James Dean was gay, James Dean was bi, he had an affair with Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray… A lot of people think Sal Mineo was killed by his lover or over drugs when really it was by a stranger. All these things get tied up in our heads. So that was the inspiration behind the show.

The show uses the film Rebel Without a Cause as its source. About 7 years after playing James Dean, I read a book about the making of that film and thought this material still had a lot of unmined potential, but it couldn’t be accessed in an earnest way like the biopic.

It needed a bit of irreverence because when Rebel Without a Cause came out in 1955 it was raw, it touched a nerve. So, to do a traditional feature film about the making of the movie would feel a little too precious.

Families – James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Nicholas Ray
We came up with the idea of a non-linear film that would deal with different aspects of Rebel Without a Cause. One of those aspects was the people that made it. That would be centred on the Chateau Marmont, this hotel in LA where Hollywood goes to misbehave. Nicholas Ray lived in a bungalow there while filming, and it’s where all the rehearsals took place and so much of the film was created.

During the film, the director Nicholas Ray, who was 43, was having an affair with Natalie Wood, who was 15. Then Dennis Hopper had an affair with her, so they were kind of fighting over her. At the same time, James Dean would go and visit Ray there late at night. Dean had a lot of issues with authority and father figures and found a loving and permissive, artistic father in Nicholas Ray.

Then there were all these scenes that had been written that didn’t make it into the final script or couldn’t be shot because of censorship laws at the time. So, one section of our film would recreate those scenes.

One section would deal with automobiles and motorcycles, this abstract energy of the time, the spirit of James Dean – it was how he died, but also racing cars was a big part of his life.

Another section would be about James Dean’s childhood. Rebel Without a Cause is so much about parents and children; and the people behind the scenes including James Dean and Nicholas Ray had their own strange personal issues with parents and children.

James Dean’s mother died when he was 8 and his father sent him away to live with his aunt and uncle, so basically he lost both parents then. I think he was working towards finding that lost love and it was one of the main engines of his career.

And Nicholas Ray had one day walked in to find his 13-year-old son in bed with his wife, the actress Gloria Grahame. Ray divorced her and the son married Gloria Grahame. So Ray had his own kind of issues with children.

All these people have very strong experiences with parents and children, and then they’re making this movie all about strife between parents and children and trying to reconcile those relationships.

Want more James Franco?

  • To read what Franco says about education and his public image, click here.
  • For his stint on American soap General Hospital, click here.
  • For his work on the movie Deuces Wild with actor Brad Renfro, click here.
  • For his version of the movie My Own Private Idaho with River Phoenix, click here.