In all of cinema it’s difficult to name an image more evocative of repressed sexuality than the lovelorn glances Plato (the lonely, likely gay teen played by Sal Mineo) shoots in the direction of cool guy Jim Stark (James Dean) in the 1955 Rebel Without A Cause. Mineo won an Academy Award nomination for his indelible portrayal of Plato and became a huge star and a teen idol with a busy film and recording career. By the time of his murder in 1976, Mineo had fallen on hard times, reduced to taking guest appearances on TV dramas and appearing in dinner theater productions of second-rate plays. Many attribute this fall from professional grace to the bisexual actor’s refusal to remain closeted.
With his penchant for tackling films about LGBT cultural figures, it’s little surprise that James Franco snagged rights to author Michael Gregg Michaud’s terrific biography of Mineo. Franco’s Sal (on VOD and opening in theaters today) takes an intimate look at the final day in the life of the 36-year-old actor, played with mesmerizing intensity by Val Lauren. Lauren also stars with longtime friend and frequent collaborator Franco in Travis Mathews’ recent Interior. Leather Bar, a meta docudrama about lost footage from the controversial 1980 thriller Cruising. Lauren chats with Queerty about Mineo’s legacy, what he might have become, and why Franco is so drawn to making films about LGBT cultural figures.
Were you very familiar with Sal Mineo before James cast you in the film?
I was aware of him as an actor. I’d seen Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. I was mostly aware of him through James Dean. I had a peripheral appreciation of him as an actor. But I had no idea about his personality and all the amazing things he’d accomplished until I started learning about him.
I presume your first step was probably reading Michael Gregg Michaud’s definitive biography of Sal.
Michael’s book was the beginning of the journey I went on to understand Sal and represent him well. It’s such a fantastic, well-detailed book about Sal that I used it as my point zero. I also had the opportunity to hang out with Michael and talk about Sal with him. He showed me thousands of pictures, and his personal things and we listened to his music. That was a huge help.
The film depicts only the last 24 hours in Mineo’s life. What was behind this decision?
When we first discussed how we were going to do this movie James was excited to not to a conventional biography, which would cover the highs and lows of a person’s life and the milestones he achieved. James was more interested in painting as intimate a portrait of the man himself as possible. This way you get to know the human being and his aura and energy and personality, rather than just become familiar with his accomplishments. The idea was to get to know him through the way he lived his last day, to get to know his personality traits from drinking a carton of orange juice to how he dealt with his neighbors.
Do you think refusing to hide his sexual orientation is what led to Sal’s career woes?
Absolutely. It just murdered his career. Sal was technically the first person to come out, but he didn’t make a big deal out it. He didn’t go on a press tour to tell everyone. He simply didn’t deny who he was. At that time it not only got him basically blackballed from the business, but his friends and past collaborators wouldn’t come near him because they didn’t want to be guilty by association. It was a horrifying fall from grace just because he didn’t want to have labels. He said he didn’t want to be labeled as a homosexual or bisexual or even a painter, he just wanted to be an artist. Unfortunately, people then weren’t as forward thinking and open as they are now. It completely dropped him from the mountaintop. He went from being one of the biggest celebrities in the world to doing dinner theater and struggling to pay the rent.
If he hadn’t been murdered, how do you think his career would have evolved?
I think he would have become a very exciting, boundary-pushing director. At the time of his death, he was very turned on by the idea of directing movies and headed in that direction. I think we’d have had a very great filmmaker on our hands.
You also play yourself in Interior. Leather Bar. How much of that film is really documentary and how much is scripted?
I hesitate to say too much because the magic of the movie lies in between. I will say that there was a script and there was a story to be told and, at the end of the day, I was playing a version of myself. The film manages to catch a certain kind of reality, which makes the movie exciting.
There’s been a lot of discussion over what’s perceived as James’ obsession with gay cultural figures. What insight can you offer?
The people that James explores who happen to be gay… outside of their sexuality they’re just very special people. If you look at Sal or James Dean or Hart Crane, these people are exciting to explore and talk about and make films about. There’s much more to them than their sexuality. If they happened to be heterosexual, it wouldn’t be such an issue. Maybe one day it won’t be so provocative and people will stop making such a big deal out of a person’s sexual orientation.