Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean

Sophia Satchell Baeza

Rumours about James Dean’s alleged bisexuality have abounded in the Hollywood gossip pages since his untimely death in a car crash in 1955. Matthew Mishory’s homoerotic mood portrait goes a bit further than studio tittle-tattle, by presenting Dean in the year before he got famous, as a bi-curious and tortured artist on the cusp of fame. Salacious to the point of feeling self-consciously provocative, this is a frustratingly unsubtle portrait of the enigmatic actor that feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to court controversy.

Director Matthew Mishory has chosen to focus on the period between 1950 and 1951, just before James Dean would become famous in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1953). Kazan had discovered him on stage, but after a long winter in New York had left him very pale, sent him and his roommate to the desert to tan. The film chooses this little-known fact as a starting point for its fairly experimental time narrative. James Preston (whose previous acting credits include the werewolf Lukas Ford in supernatural TV drama ‘The Gates’) plays James Dean as a frustratingly witless hunk with pretentions of intellectual grandeur. The film goes to a lot of trouble to make Dean seem like a tortured intellectual, and yet a lumpy script lets the actors down, making them sound more like a pseudo-intellectual student desperately memorizing the lines of a Rimbaud poem in order to get some play on a date. Although, to be fair, Dean reveals a proleptic flash of insight, by citing “Catch 22” ten years before Joseph Heller invented it in the 1960s.

James Preston as James Dean. 

Choosing to film Dean in the desert, and not on the often-shown Hollywood studios or dive bars of other 1950s period pieces, is to be commended, and the best scenes in the film appear in Joshua Tree in the Mojave desert, where the film moodily begins and ends. Some of the most entertaining moments are also the best looking. A scene in the swimming pool of predatory agent Roger (Edward Singletary Jr.) is a gorge-fest of tanning bottoms and topless ladies drinking cocktails. Rather salacious graphic sex scenes, as well as joyously unsubtle phallic taps dripping, score high on the oi-oi factor; the thought crossed my mind whether it might have been a more enjoyable film if the director had just stuck to the how’s-your-father, and avoided the pensive and unconvincing tortured artist spiel of other moments.

Cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah has created a fabulous looking period piece that at the same time exudes a timeless quality. Almost exclusively shot in 35mm black-and-white, with occasional inserts of 8mm colour to give those moments the hand-held camera effect of a home movie, the film still exudes a peculiarly modern feel, a shiny gloss that, more often than not, gives the piece the glossy sheen of a made-for-TV film.  However, the film’s good looks and raw sexuality can only go so far. Once it opens its mouth, the feeling’s gone...

Follow Sophia on Twitter: @SophiaSB1

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