`Sal': James Franco's overlong labor of love celebrates Sal Mineo

            The Longest Day wasn’t necessarily June 6, 1944.  It’s rivaled by February 12, 1976---the last day of actor Sal Mineo’s life, as filmed by actor-director James Franco.

            “Sal” begins with a TV news announcement: the demise of the baby-faced Bronx boy who got his first Oscar nomination for playing the sensitive teen smitten by James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.”  A crooner as well, his 1957 song “Movin’ in My Direction” sold a million copies and hit #7 on the Billboard chart.  His soulful performance in “Exodus” brought him a second Oscar nod in 1958. 

            But baby faces and voices rarely hold up well with time.  As age goes up, movie parts go down.  His struggles with booze and drugs were plastered in the papers.  He was one of the first major actors to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality.  He desperately wanted to play Fredo in “The Godfather” but lost the role to John Cazale.  In the mid-‘70s, though, he seemed finally getting close to the acting-directing deal of his dreams...

            There is usually a problematic reason why a film’s release is held up for more than two years.  In “Sal’s” case, it’s Franco’s concept of encapsulating Mineo’s entire life in its final fatal day---no mean feat.

            Franco opens it with an incredibly long, heavy gym work-out session and then moves to an equally long, heavy conversational work-out over lunch between Sal and his best friend/agent (Vince Jolivette) about the “raw and graphic” screenplay he has written and plans to direct.  It sounds a bit like “Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” his infamous stage sensation of 1971, which featured Don Johnson in a shockingly realistic prison rape.

            Next comes a long wakeup scene---every detail of Sal’s morning routine.  He mentions a “night out with the boys in the band,” picks up a boyfriend for a City Spa swimming session with some rough play in the pool, followed by a professional massage ---nothing really sexual.  “James Dean would take these corners at 50,” he tells his pal on the drive home---virtually his only past screen-work reference in the whole film.

            Sal is a cautious driver himself.  He comes across, in fact, as rather normal in every way---calm, stable, upbeat, affectionate and caring, especially toward his black maid and his friend’s dog, smothering both with hugs and kisses.  He’s nearly broke, but neither lonely nor alone.

            Indeed, by 1976, Mineo’s career had begun to turn around.  He performance as a bisexual burglar in the stage comedy “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead” was so well received in San Francisco that he moved with the play to Los Angeles, patiently working with co-star Keir Dullea (Gone Tomorrow), “who can’t memorize four lines in a row.”  Upon returning home from one such long rehearsal, he was stabbed to death, at 37, behind his West Hollywood apartment building by a robber who had no idea who he was.

            The tragic senselessness was compounded by persistent urban-legend slanders that his murder was related to a drug deal or to soliciting his attacker for sex.

            Val Lauren is nicely restrained in the title role.  The problem lies in the lackluster script, plus director Franco’s love of endlessly long ECU (extreme close-up) takes and equally endless driving scenes---Sal in his Chevy Malibu, listening to torch songs.  Shot in nine days (!), Franco further economized on actor bills by casting himself and his production company associates in the minor roles.  He was rightly celebrated for his harrowing “127 Hours.”   His other admirable biopic projects include films about James Dean, Allen Ginsberg and Hart Crane---with one on Charles Bukowski forthcoming. 

            It’s a plethora, and this one got short shrift.  As a character study, it could and should have been much more.  “Sal” pays tribute but fails to deeply illuminate the subject.  Tragic gay icon, or just ill-fated good guy?   

            This murder mystery is all mood, the man at its center unsolved even after the murder is.


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