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James Dean comes alive in a new made-for-TNT movie.

Dead Ringer

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It's a rare actor who can convincingly play a real-life character that still looms large for the audience. The late Ralph Bellamy comes to mind as one of the most successful. He played FDR in "Sunrise at Campobello" for more than 500 performances on Broadway beginning in 1958 — just over a decade after FDR died. On television, Bellamy played the 32nd president in two major miniseries, 1983's "Winds of War" and 1989's "War and Remembrance." He was astoundingly credible, even though there are many still alive who remember the real FDR, and the rest of us have seen countless newsreel pictures.

The difficulty of pulling it off is why some actors make other choices when confronted with playing a familiar character from real life. Cliff Robertson, for example, didn't try to imitate JFK in "PT 109," which came out in 1963, while the 35th president was still in the White House. Robertson went for and achieved the essence of JFK's character as a Navy officer in World War II without trying to look and act like him.

Which brings us to the late James Dean, the appealingly moody, broody — and extremely charismatic — young actor who grabbed the nation's attention in three films in the early 1950s. All three are classic: "East of Eden," "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant." He is forever frozen in memory and on celluloid in his early 20s: He died in a car crash in 1955 when he was only 24. His fans were devastated.

Now comes the young James Franco, almost unknown, who is cast as James Dean in a new made-for-cable movie titled, simply enough, "James Dean." And he makes the decision not only to go for the core of Dean's character, but also to try to capture Dean's look and mannerisms. It's a tall order.

Franco made wise choices. His James Dean is hauntingly reminiscent of the real thing. To start with, Franco looks a lot like Dean. The rest comes easily with the right haircut and a little makeup. But it's Franco's version of Dean's mannerisms and style that are astonishing — that diffident way he had of ducking his head and averting his eyes, the barely controlled inner turmoil that threatens to break through unexpectedly, that mumbling manner of speaking that rivals Brando's. Franco has it down, dead solid perfect.

What he doesn't have — yet — is Dean's intensity. Dean was driven to act, to battle his demons — and there were many, including his sexual identity, the death of his mother when he was 9 and his father's rejection — through the characters he played. Dean didn't merely act a part. He immersed himself in a role.

Franco manages to work his way into Dean's body and mind in "James Dean," but the soul of the legendary rebel who was emblematic of a generation eludes him.

Nevertheless, Franco's amazing turn as Dean is well worth watching. He took a chance in going for both the character and the look, and it pays off handsomely for the audience.



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