Life, James Dean and the limits of nostalgia

by J E Smyth Reader in History, University of Warwick 29.09.2015

Life offers a brief “outtake” from one of the most famous lives to be profiled in the magazine of the same name’s history. James Dean starred in only three major Hollywood films before his death in a car crash on September 30 1955. The film’s opening is timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the actor’s death.

Anton Corbijn’s biopic covers the brief period in 1955 when Dean (Dane Dehaan) was between pictures (East of Eden was about to premiere and Rebel Without a Cause was in casting and script stages) and escaped Hollywood and the tender mercies of Jack Warner for the streets of New York and his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana. On his trail was Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), a struggling photographer and inept father obsessed with the young actor, seeing something unique in him, but struggling to define it in words or pictures. Life magazine is at first reluctant and suspicious of both of them, and the film focuses on Stock and Dean’s uneasy relationship as the photoessay takes shape.

Indiana blues. eOne

The film tries to define Dean; his rebellion, awkwardness, sweetness, and unspoiled mixture of artfulness and simplicity. But it fails. To say that Life is the male variation of 2011’s My Week With Marilyn (2011) may be too cruel, but it certainly has all of the same elements. It’s hard for historical films about Hollywood to escape this sense of being elaborate star-spotting costume dramas. Life comes across as a parade of modern, rather lifeless faces attempting to be Julie Harris, Natalie Wood (only there for a few seconds and brushed off as “honey” by Nicholas Ray at a party), Jack Warner, Eartha Kitt, Lee Strasberg, and of course Dean himself.

It’s got all the costumes and cars and somewhat niche pre-sold Golden Age Hollywood history, but no new ideas or stylistic innovations. There are some rather obvious sequences: premieres of A Star is Born which a reluctant and slightly jealous Dean attends with Pier Angeli (and of course it had to be A Star is Born); a scene of mogul Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley) as a menacing thug trying to haul his reluctant new star into line (another cliché of the Hollywood genre); the predictable sex scenes with Angeli (but nothing that more than hints at Dean’s bisexual lifestyle).

A Star is Born. eOne

There are bongo drums and benzedrine and dancing with Eartha Kitt and Dean reading poetry and talking wistfully about his beloved mother Mildred, who first instilled a love of acting in him, but Dehaan’s Dean just doesn’t have the depth of the real Dean. Even his voice is thin and ethereal, compared with Dean’s tough nasal drawl, roughened by constant smoking. Perhaps Dehaan is too healthy. He smiles and squints and looks philosophically troubled in his blue room in New York. Point?

Rose tinted

Dean is one of the biggest moneymaking Hollywood icons of all time. His family in Indiana, the Winslows, pioneered the copyrighted image merchandise, so that anyone who wants to even put Dean on a poster or advertisement or post a photograph has to pay a licensing fee. In the 1980s sweet little Markie (who we see gazing up adoringly at his cousin) ran a range of ties and coffee mugs and key chains that rivalled anything done for Marilyn Monroe and Elvis.

Dean’s friends, who knew of his privacy and independence and sense of personal space, were appalled at the way his relations were making money out of his death. Nothing like it had been attempted before. Hollywood was supposed to have the marketing power, but the Winslows changed all that.

Perhaps that is why his family is treated so gently in this film. Dean’s return to the farm in Indiana is idyllic. They are all waiting for him smiling and with hugs. There is even a birthday cake (but no singing “Happy Birthday” for this production — they just missed the outcome of the Warner/Chappell licensing case). Dean is happy and at peace reading comics with Markie and fetching wood with his uncle; Stack is ill-at-ease.

Given what I know of Dean’s lonely, loveless childhood (see Val Holley’s biography), I’ve always seen this house as more of a mausoleum or a good location for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre prequel. So there is something troubling in these happy images. The family and the past are reconstructed with such melancholy love that any critical element is missing.

Pretty, but that’s it

Yes, there are a few moments of beauty in the film. One where Dean walks joyfully in the snow in Central Park — but the cut is too short. It’s the same again with the moment Stock realises that asking Dean to walk on the streets of Time Square is a good idea. A few seconds of snapping pictures, he looks up and just wants to go to Indiana. We’re almost there, tapping into something interesting, but there’s no moment, no reflection – it just appears out of the blue. The film feels like more of a catalogue of historical incidents than a serious meditation on Dean.

Nostalgia films like this are really just for mavens, academics and Twilight fans who want to stare at Pattinson’s profile. For those of you that want to really see something, wait till the final credits roll and you see inserts of the real James Dean in the original March 7 1955 issue of Life. They are fantastic blown up on the big screen.

But I would rather see East of Eden. And I mean the real one, not the planned remake.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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