Film Review: Sal

Romantically evocative but under-scripted imagining of Sal Mineo's final hours.
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The tirelessly productive James Franco, who so memorably played James Dean in a 2001 TV movie, now turns his directorial eye to the actor Sal Mineo (1939-76), who famously co-starred with Dean in the epochal Rebel Without a CauseSal covers the final hours in the life of Mineo, who was stabbed to death by pizza deliveryman Lionel Ray Williams on the night of February 12, 1976. It's a dreamy, hazy, sun-kissed evocation of the cherubically sexy Mineo, every bit as iconic—especially to generations of gay men—as Dean was, playing the troubled, tragic Plato in Rebel. He was one of the first major stars to come out as a homosexual, a decision which doubtlessly affected his career in a negative way.

Val Lauren, so good in the Franco-produced Interior: Leather Bar, is an appealing, apt physical match for Mineo, and we follow him as he works out at the gym, gets a massage at the City Spa (notorious for its reputation as a gay trysting place for Hollywood celebrities), tries to score drugs on the phone, and rehearses for his stage production of P.S. Your Cat Is Dead, while scaring up friends to attend its opening night. A lot of the film takes place in Mineo's Chevy Malibu as he cruises around Los Angeles, while a female singer croons jazz on his tape deck, and the idea of one's car as a home in the City of Angels has rarely been so effectively pronounced on film.

Franco's visual sense and skill with atmosphere are strongly evident here, but, unfortunately, not enough happens in the movie. Enraptured by faces, he favors intense, claustrophobic close-ups and lingers on silent sequences of workout sessions and massages which, while they doubtlessly convey the right louche Southern Californian/Cocteau ambiance, begin to feel somewhat self-indulgent.

Mineo had a brief but very rich life, and more could have been suggested of it: his Bronx and New York stage roots, varied film roles, relationships with women as well as men, even his briefly successful recording career. What we get is a brief reminiscence of James Dean’s reckless driving. As far as his sexuality goes, although he appears as a happily secure gay man, apart from his adamant wish to include homosexuality in a wished-for film project, he never discusses it here, or the price he had to pay for his openness. (Desperate to win the role of Fredo in The Godfather, he once camped out on Francis Ford Coppola's yard.) We do see him thumbing through an issue of the gay porn magazine Drummer, as well as some unstressed homoerotic art on his apartment walls.

The staged murder is no doubt as swift and brutal as it was in actuality, and heartbreaking, for Mineo was only 36 at the time and on the verge of a career comeback. (Had he lived, one could easily imagine him imaginatively being cast by such as David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino.) His killer was actually paroled from jail in the 1990s, but again imprisoned for more crimes committed.