James Dean: Portrait of a Friend (1976)
This biopic was later released on VHS under the title 'James Dean: The Legend'. Yet its original title is far more indicative of the film’s depiction of James Dean. For this is not a movie that seeks to cultivate ‘the legend’. It eschews the actor’s mythology and depicts Dean the way his friend saw him - “a very strange, moody guy, who had a compelling quality about him in private as well as on the screen”.
In the first and best on-screen portrayal of James Dean, Stephen McHattie is mesmerizing in the title role. Apart from the easily recognised character traits, McHattie manages to capture Dean's restless energy, which made his acting seem so immediate.
A scene in which James Dean has to constantly remind a female fan that he is not Cal Trask (his character from East of Eden) provides a glimpse of the fanaticism that surrounded the star's life and death. It is perhaps ironic then that one comes away from this film feeling that they truly seen the ‘real’ James Dean.
Despite serving as both producer and screenwriter of this film, William Bast later claimed that the book on which it was based omitted details “that the law and my faint heart hadn’t allow me to commit to print back in 1956.” Thirty years after this film’s original airing (and fifty years after James Dean’s death) he wrote ‘Surviving James Dean', in which he stated that their friendship had included some sexual intimacy.
Though the film strongly infers that James Dean experimented with homosexuality, his relationship with William Bast is depicted as being strictly platonic. To underscore this, Dean coaxes Bast to visit a gay bar. When Bast is propositioned by a stranger, he phones Dean to advise he isn’t ready. Returning to their apartment, Bast discovers Dean has left for the night. A quote from ‘The Little Prince’ has been underlined for his attention – ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye’.
Though this biopic contains no explicit scene recreations, it does reference scenes from Dean's short filmography.