James Dean: A New Film Tells the Sexual Truth
What could possibly be left to say about late screen icon James Dean? After countless books, documentaries, and film bios, director Matthew Mishory thinks there’s plenty. Joshua Tree 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, his feature directorial debut currently making the rounds of film festivals around the globe, offers a breathtaking look at a little-known period in the actor’s life. Set in the early 1950s when the charismatic Indiana native was just another determined hopeful, Mishory’s Dean (portrayed by The Gates star James Preston) depends on the kindess of well-to-do gentlemen friends, while experimenting sexually with his male roomate as well as numerous females. It’s a portrayal that will likely excite many fans of the mercurial star but upset others unready for the sexual frankness on display here — all told in glorious black-and-white cinematography. Mishory tells The Advocate about the making of his film, how Hollywood was more sexually liberated during its Golden Age, and why we’re still fascinated with Dean.
The Advocate: Matthew, I hope people who see Joshua Tree 1951 don’t walk in expecting a conventional film biography. I think even the title makes it clear that it isn’t.
Matthew Mishory: The title was carefully chosen to make it clear from the outset that this film really isn’t like any prior film about James Dean. Ours is a portrait, a moment in time or outside of time, and the film deals very narrowly with the year before Dean moved to New York, joined the Actors Studio, and subsequently launched his career. So it’s a film that looks for the antecedents of a remarkable life and a remarkable career in the struggle of trying to break through. It’s a film about an awkward young man from Indiana who makes his way to Hollywood with a very big dream and tremendous ambition, and he gets eaten alive. But, ultimately, he also leaves us this incredible legacy.
Why did you decide to make a film about someone whose life has been covered in so many ways with so many other projects?
Well, I didn’t feel that any of the screen explorations that had been done to date had explored Dean in the way we do. I think we offer a completely different take on who this man was — a more intimate take and an exploration of a period of his life that had rarely been put to screen before and certainly never in this way.
When you were writing the screenplay and developing the film, was there a conscious attempt to create something really unique?
Because we didn’t make the film within the studio system, there was nobody looking over our shoulder telling us, “You can’t do that.” We had a very specific idea about the film we wanted to make, and while we are certainly humbled by the exposure and attention it has received, it started out as a very modest project, and we were able to carve out a very specific niche for ourselves within the greater historiography surrounding James Dean. We wanted to create a very intimate and perhaps unexpected portrait of who this man was. And that is the core of James Preston’s performance — actually conveying who James Dean was, not as an icon but as a person.
As a Dean fan, I appreciate that. I found James Preston’s performance brave. He doesn’t go for easy imitation.
It was never our intention or James’s to portray Dean via mimicry or to create an impersonation of Dean as people know him through popular culture. James plays the character as he was, as a young man who comes to Los Angeles and is developing new and interesting ideas about what performance should be and how it relates to other art forms and who is finding himself as a person. I don’t believe that has ever really been done before.
What’s the response been so far?
We’ve been so pleased to have shared the film with audiences all over the world, and our experience has overwhelmingly been that people are finding a lot to connect to in the movie — especially once they recognize that we have taken a very different approach and open themselves up to a nonconventional experience. This is not a cookie-cutter biopic. That has been done and been done well before. We have tried something very different, and I’ve spoken to a lot of people after screenings who appreciate that approach. I suppose we’ve also stirred up a bit of controversy, but that was never really our intention.
What is it about Dean that keeps people enthralled nearly 60 years after his death?
On the one hand, there is the sort of self-created mythology of James Dean as sensitive rebel bad boy that perhaps exists in at least one of the screen performances but largely was created through publicity photographs and the public imagination. It is interesting how many people think that they know who this man truly was because they have seen a T-shirt or a poster in a memorabilia shop. But I think that, in a more cosmic sense, Dean continues to enthrall and always will because he fundamentally changed acting. He changed the way actors act on-screen. He brought a naturalism and an intensity to his performance that I feel didn’t exist before him. As many have pointed out, watching him act opposite his contemporaries, one often wonders if he is in an entirely different movie. Without Dean, we would never have had the great young method actors who followed — River Phoenix, for instance. So I think he fundamentally changed the way actors act and also the way Hollywood portrayed young people. The three Dean performances represent probably the first three truly realistic and compelling young characters in studio movies. Dean marks perhaps the first real American teenager put to film.
Don’t you think that by changing the way people act, he was also changing the way people lived?
Of course, because, in a sense, we live through the movies. And, perhaps, as a result of his three screen performances, there emerged in the popular consciousness a more empathetic view of what it’s like to be young. I cannot imagine that anybody who has seen Rebel Without a Cause has ever felt quite the same way again about high school outsiders. Dean’s work encouraged Hollywood to focus insightfully for the first time on the tenuous process of growing up in America.
One area of Dean’s persona that’s still constantly debated is his sexuality. Do you think he privately conformed to some label? Was he bi? Was he gay?
One of the things I really like about our film is that you’ll never hear the words “gay” or “bisexual” or “heterosexual” spoken. You won’t hear any sexual labels expressed because we approach the topic of sexuality without any angst or hand-wringing at all. The characters are who are they are and were, and we leave any judgments or labels to the audience. That said, the notion that James Dean was nonheterosexual hardly begins with this film, and what is essentially common knowledge is, to my mind, entirely uncontroversial. One thing that so fascinates about this era, the late ’40s and early ’50s, especially among the Hollywood elite, is that people lived much more freely, sexually, than they do in our more conservative times. The great difference is that privacy still existed, so they did so behind closed doors. And of course there was an entire studio publicity machine in place to keep certain realities hidden from prying eyes.
Do you think that grappling with his sexual orientation really gave him insight into playing these tortured characters?
I think that, as James Preston has often remarked, Dean had no lack of pain to draw upon. His mother died horrendously of brain cancer when he was 8 years old. He had a father who probably didn’t love him enough and definitely didn’t know how to show it. And then he made his way to Hollywood, without a trust fund or family name, to chase a truly impossible dream, and on top of that, he wanted to change the way people actually acted in films. He was doing something so incredibly difficult and without really any support, and he struggled. And that struggle, the cost of his dream, is something we explore in the film, as well as the notion that pain and suffering and living in an extreme way, as Arthur Rimbaud suggested, can be the basis of great art.
The cinematography is particularly remarkable. Who were some of the filmmakers who influenced the film’s style?
We looked at films ranging from Tarnished Angels, which is the best black-and-white movie Douglas Sirk made, to Poison and Tom Kalin’s Swoon, to many, many films of the era. But, really, the references were not other filmmakers so much as stills photographers and painters. For me, the first great filmmaker was Caravaggio, who was a master before the medium was even invented. He certainly perfected film lighting. And we looked at many of the photographs of Ansel Adams as well as studio photographers of the day.
James Preston gives a mesmerizing performance. How did you decide he was right to play Dean?
We put out a breakdown. Literally thousands of actors submitted for the part, including some women, and virtually every young actor in Hollywood. Along with my producer, Edward Singletary Jr., I culled through a massive list of submissions, and Edward pre-read actors. When we got to the callbacks, it was between James, who had come to us through [Joshua Tree actress] Dalilah Rain, and a few others. And when James came in we knew that we had our Jimmy. It wasn’t that he looked more or less like James Dean, although he did, and it wasn’t that he could do a mimicry or an impersonation, because we didn’t want that at all. James had a naturalism to his performance style that fit what we were trying to do. And he was a 20-year-old kid from Texas who had dropped out of art school, hopped in his truck, and drove to L.A. to be an actor. He had experienced the struggle, and he had a great quality that fit this character. I think that his performance in the film is fearless and remarkable, and I am proud to have played some small part in what is sure to ultimately be James’s large and fascinating body of work as an actor.
Joshua Tree 1951: A Portrait of James Dean will screen at L.A.'s DGA Theatre tonight at 9:45 p.m. For more information go to Outfest.org. Watch the trailer below.