Today is the 60th anniversary of the death of James Dean. Whether you’re a fan of Dean’s or not (I am not, particularly, though it would have been nice to see where he would have gone), there’s no question that he is one of the key figures that helped create the myth of the movie star as icon, partly by dying way too young and just as his talent was beginning to blaze across the screen. His legend received an assist via a propitiously timed photo essay in Life magazine in 1955 — which appeared just months before Dean’s death but probably would have given Dean a similar boost even if he were still alive today — that offered an intimate look at a young actor on the edge of fame. It included that famous — well, iconic — photo of Dean hunched over in the rain in Times Square, smoking a cigarette. Life is the story of how that photo came to be, and it ends up a smart, wistful exploration of art, ambition, celebrity, and the unhappy crossroads where they clash.
The real James Dean photographed by the real Dennis Stock in 1955.
Dennis Stock is a freelance photojournalist when he meets Dean in Los Angeles in early ’55: the young, still mostly unknown actor is currently waiting to hear whether Nicolas Ray will cast him in the director’s upcoming Rebel Without a Cause. But after Stock attends, at Dean’s invitation, a press preview of the about-to-open East of Eden, featuring Dean’s breakout role, the photographer sees instantly that there is an exciting freshness to Dean, one he wants to document. “You’re doing something else,” says Stock to Dean here. “It’s not Hollywood.” And Stock is very, very tired of “Hollywood”: the fluff of red carpets and the emptiness of celebrity “journalism” are not what he had planned to make his life’s work. Just as Dean does, he dreams of making good art.
There’s something especially, satisfyingly “not Hollywood” in Life director Anton Corbijn (A Most Wanted Man, The American) casting Robert Pattinson — who could plausibly be considered something of a modern James Dean — not as the actor but as the photographer: the unpleasant side of celebrity is something Pattinson knows far too well, and his presence here adds layers of appealing irony. As with Dean himself, you don’t need to be a fan of Pattinson’s (Maps to the Stars, Cosmopolis) to see that his career is a different kind of case study: in the meteoric rise to fame followed by what looks like a horrified (and too-late) appreciation of what fame is going to do to one’s life and work. (I am a fan of Pattinson’s, though I’m still trying to pinpoint precisely what is so intriguing about him. I suspect it’s too early to tell, perhaps because he’s still trying to figure out what he wants; I’m happy to give him another few years of fumfering around, because what he’s doing along the way is so weirdly interesting.) So here, the reluctance of Dean (portrayed with a pensive poignance by the always fantastic Dane DeHaan [The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Devil’s Knot]) to embrace the celebrity he sees barreling toward him takes on an extra significance beyond our knowledge about what fate awaits the actor. It’s a bit of a cautionary tale for our culture today, in which so many people seem to clamor for fame without realizing what price it exacts.
There’s so much subtle and compelling going on in Life! Little hints here and there create the melancholy suggestion that Dean’s ambivalence toward fame approaches something of an unconscious death wish: a studio chief (Ben Kingsley: Self/less, Exodus: Gods and Kings) suggesting that “whatever’s gonna happen” to Dean won’t “happen by accident”; an agent (Kristian Bruun) telling Dean, “You gotta play the game,” meaning “do the PR,” when clearly he actually doesn’t, and often won’t. I don’t mean that to sound like a crude indictment of Dean, or that the movie is placing any sort of blame on him for his own death: the film ends as Dean, having of course gotten that Rebel role, flies off to Hollywood to shoot the film, and hence doesn’t get anywhere near his death. But he flies off on a beautiful silver airplane into sunstreaked clouds, in fact. The entirety of Life serves as a retro premonition of Dean’s doom — if not literal than at least definitely metaphorical — as, perhaps, inevitable, which itself serves as a gloomy condemnation of the fact that, at least for some in Hollywood, following one’s bliss and wanting to do “good stuff” is a path that leads less to happiness the more “successful” one is.