James Dean: A New Film Tells the Sexual Truth

Filmmaker Matthew Mishory discusses his provocative new movie, Joshua Tree 1951, and explains why we’re still fascinated by the late screen icon.



Director Matthew Mishory


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.

Tags: film