Director: Anton Corbijn
Major Players: Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan, Joel Egerton
Out Of Five: 3
As the 60th anniversary of James Dean’s death in a car accident approaches (30 September), we can expect plenty of re-appraisals of the actor who starred in just three films. I’ve even done it myself, for Filmoria. Because East Of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, as we all know, are just part of the story.
As is Anton Corbijn’s Life, a film the director is anxious to point out is not a biopic, but instead traces just a few months in the actor’s life, months that were eventually immortalised in print. Struggling photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) is intrigued by the up-coming Dean (Dane DeHaan) and eventually convinces his agent that the actor would make a good subject for a photo spread. The agent sells the idea to Life magazine and then it’s down to Stock to deliver. It’s an assignment that takes him all the way to Indiana to see the other side of the future star.
The title, of course, has a double meaning. It’s the name of the magazine, but this is also a film about Dean’s own life, encapsulated in a short space of time. We see him in the city, awkward in front of the press, only interested in doing “good acting” and finding it impossible to be what Jack Warner (a wonderfully theatrical cameo from Ben Kingsley) calls “a good boy.” He simply won’t toe the line and is a nightmare for his agent. Yet back on the Indiana farm with his family, he’s a different person.
Stock’s relationship with his agent, John Morris (Joel Egerton) isn’t much better, but it’s in reverse. He has to badger him for work and convince him that the Dean feature is worth pursuing. He even turns down a month in Japan doing set stills for Tea House Of The August Moon (a Brando film, although that’s never mentioned). It’s almost too easy to overlook Morris, but it’s a nicely understated, world-weary piece of acting from Joel Egerton, who initially doesn’t have a clue who Dean is and would rather Stock followed his advice and built up his portfolio. Just like his quarry, Stock has other ideas.
As an insight into the ruthless Hollywood machine, it’s fascinating. The film industry, after all, always enjoys putting itself in the spotlight. The studio system is long gone, yet this shows how little has changed. Jack Warner is the last of the dinosaurs, still ruling his studio like a dictator, which means Dean has to do the rounds of interviews, the photo shoots, turn up to red carpets, be seen and, in theory, do everything the studio demands. Except that he doesn’t. He’s not interested and is a handful for his minder. And allowing Stock access to his childhood home broke the rules as well: it most certainly would never happen now. The photographer gets to see another Dean, gets to know the family and the end result is a set of beautifully intimate shots. What it’s not is a fawning “star in their lovely home” feature.
It’s a film that promises much. Corbijn’s casting of DeHaan as Dean is a smart choice: he captures the actor’s look, as well as his mercurial nature and his more compassionate side. And it’s a film with a few genuinely strong moments. The red light bulb in Stock’s dark room crackling to life at the start of the film. A beautiful scene with Stock and Dean on the train to Indiana when the actor relates how, after his mother died, he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle on a farm. The train howls in the background and there are tears in Dean’s eyes. It’s at that moment that the relationship between the two men gels, but the film itself never gets near those heights again and the overall result is uneven and patchy.
Yes, this is Dean’s story, but it’s also the story of two talented young men who didn’t fit the mould. Stock struggles with family life and marvels at Dean’s apparently relaxed relationship with his aunt and uncle on the farm. What neither of them could have known was that this would turn out to be the actor’s last visit home. Just months later, he was dead. Stock’s feature, The Moody Star, appeared in Life magazine and proved to be the springboard for a glittering career. He died in 2010.
Life is released in cinemas on Friday, 25 September and will be reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 24 September.