LGBT Movies: James Dean: Portrait of a Friend (1976)

James Dean cemented his legendary status when he died at the age of 24. Countless fans projected their fantasies upon him. Rumors of his bisexuality were rampant. The first film to address this was NBC’s James Dean: Portrait of a Friend. It was written by his friend (and alleged lover) William Bast.

Actor Stephen McHattie makes no attempt to imitate Dean’s look and manner. But he convinces as a chaotic dreamer who charmed and maddened everyone around him. Michael Brandon plays Bast as a sad sack. Forever pining in the background as Dean’s star rises. It’s not a flattering self-portrait. The film is formulaic when recounting Dean’s career. But crackles when Bast and Dean are together.

Let’s have a look in this spoiler filled recap.

Act One: Friendship  

Scene One: Therapy
BAST (a screenwriter): I dreamed about James Dean again. He asked me to save him. I feel like I let him down.
THERAPIST: When did you first meet?

Scene Two: College Theater
DEAN: Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare. Line?
BAST: Shakespeare.
DEAN: Thanks. With our talents we could conquer Hollywood. Move in with me.

Scene Three: Acting Class
TEACHER: Acting Acting Acting.
DEAN: Acting.
TEACHER: Exactly. Now improvise a scene with Bast.
DEAN: I have a girlfriend.
BAST: You dirty bastard!
(They wrestle each other to the ground.)
BAST: I’m moving out.

Act Two: Sexual Tension

Scene Four: New York. Later.
(Dean steps out of the shower. Bast stares and fondles a flute.)
DEAN: I’m glad you came back. Toro!   
(Dean waves a red cape. Bast charges like a bull. Dean lifts a sword. Bast stops.)
DEAN: You always did chicken out before the kill. 
BAST: Can we just f***?

Scene Five: Shared Apartment
(Dean and Bast lounge in their underwear. Like buddies do.)
DEAN: Have you read The Little Prince? A lonely boy tames a fox. When you tame a wild animal, you become responsible for it. Have you ever made it with a man?
BAST: N-n-n-no. Have you?
DEAN: I want you to go to a gay bar and order a drink.
(Later. Bast phones from the bar.)
BAST: An old man wants to sleep with me. I’m scared.
DEAN: You’re not ready. Come home. I’ll introduce you to my new girlfriend.
BAST: OH, COME ON!

Act Three: Fame

Scene Six: East of Eden premiere. 1955.
BAST: I went to the premiere of East of Eden. Dean’s first starring role. Afterwards I went home, sat in my bath tub, and cried.
DEAN: Feeling sorry for yourself?
BAST: I didn’t realize you’d become a star. I’ve lost you for good.

Scene Seven: Therapy
BAST: And then he died in a car wreck. I never let him know how much I loved him.
THERAPIST: I think you made it clear.

THE END

Haunted

I’m not a homosexual, but I’m also not going through life with one hand tied behind my back.

James Dean

In his 2006 book, Surviving James Dean, Bast confessed that he and Dean became lovers. The 2012 film Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean would fictionalize their relationship. It’s interesting but the 1976 film was riskier. Bast steered close to the truth at a time when the subject was still taboo. We’ll never know the “real” James Dean. But A Portrait of a Friend gives us a good look at the real William Bast.

You can watch the 1976 film on multiple streaming services. The Wasp wrote an essay on Dean’s filmography that you can read here. You can find my reviews on The Avocado, Letterboxd and Serializd. My podcast, Rainbow Colored Glasses, can be found here.