Featuring: Dane DeHaan, Robert Pattinson, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley
Director: Anton Corbijn
Writer: Luke Davies
Movie website: lifethefilm.com/
Australian release date: Thu 10 Sep
Verdict: An intriguing characterisation of the person behind the James Dean image, and of the photographer who helped to establish him as an icon.
James Dean is among the most pervasive of Hollywood icons, but what of the man behind the legend? That largely unasked question is the jumping off point for this intriguing film from director Anton Corbijn. Having graduated to film from an acclaimed career in photography and rock videos, Corbijn is well-credentialed to take on the task of fleshing out the person beneath the image, presumably drawing on both biographical material and the qualities that Dean embodies in photographic and celluloid images.
The characterisation is facilitated by focusing the narrative on the developing friendship between photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) and actor Dean (Dane DeHaan). Both are hip to the embryonic youth culture about to rise up like a tsunami and transform mid-50s America, and both are single-mindedly trying to break through in high-risk careers. Dean has just finished East of Eden and has come to notice within the industry (Jack Warner, despotic chief of Warner Bros, signs him up in a Faustian deal that speaks volumes about the nature of the industry in those days – and perhaps now). However, he is yet to hit big with the public. Stock sees something extraordinary in the strange but visually compelling young actor, which he hopes to capture in a series of spec photographs for LIFE magazine. Hence the title of the film, which speaks to the image vs personal reality dichotomy that is one of its central concerns. Clever.
The story has two settings, the first urban (LA and New York), with Dean introduced as a solitary figure sitting at a bar (naturally). DeHaan is a good likeness and has the Dean mumble down pat, but there’s an uneasy sense about what lies ahead. An exercise in recreating an icon of 50s post-Beat cool? Please no. And really, who can do Dean but Dean?
Such doubts are quickly dispelled as DeHaan makes the character his own and it becomes clear that there is to be much more to him than raised collars and sullen taciturnity in gloomy bars (the 50s bohemian fringe atmosphere comes across as remarkably authentic). The Dean that emerges here is eccentric, fiercely individualistic, insecure, funny, an ingénue in love and in Hollywood, and rather than cool or rebellious, an oddity moving to the very different beat of his own drum (he carts around a cherished Indian tomtom as he moves from one cheap apartment to another – it seems to serve as a comforting constant in his life).
Screen time is almost equally split between Dean and Stock, whose struggles with authority figures in their work environments and turmoil in their personal lives run in parallel. Indeed, Stock’s story is as interesting as Dean’s, and his character as well played by an excellent Robert Pattinson.
The lads’ time in New York takes in some superbly shot scenes, the most memorable (and predictable) being of Dean and a babe dancing to a jukebox in a diner while Stock watches on from a table, rapping feverishly to a girl as the effects of Benzedrine come on, and of Stock taking the famous boulevard shot of a grim Dean in his greatcoat, hunched against the winter chill.
The mood changes dramatically when Stock accompanies Dean to his small home town in Indiana. In leaving the urban for the rural, a more comfortable, content, family-orientated country-boy-James-Dean emerges that is far more endearing than the familiar figure of popular culture. In contrast, Stock flounders in the unfamiliar environment – as, we now realise, does Dean in urban settings (a key insight into the character).
There is a striking closing image of a plane bound for LA climbing steeply into the sun. Aboard is Dean, who is to begin shooting Rebel Without A Cause. At this point he is no longer an icon for the viewer, but a well-rounded character whose humanity has been reclaimed in the course of the film AND an Icarus who went too fast and flew too high. Thus, the image and the character are reconciled, while our awareness that he is to die in a car crash within months compounds the emotional power and figurative impact of this perfect final scene.
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