Issue:  Vol. 44 / No. 48 / 27 November 2014
 
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James Dean in the
looking glass

Film


Scene from director Matthew Mishory's Joshua Tree 1951: A Portrait of James Dean.
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My late friend Marty was a natural rebel, arriving in San Francisco in the late 60s when the visible queers hung out in North Beach. During our 18 years, he had sex with rough guys out at Ocean Beach, kept pot brownies in our freezer, and loved staying up late recalling the amazing movie that struck him like a thunderbolt during a stormy Venice, CA adolescence. That movie was East of Eden, and it featured a young man whose meteoric stardom would far outlast his 24 years.

Two years younger than Marty, I missed out on the tidal wave of yearning that James Dean's complex screen persona unleashed in so many kids hitting puberty in a time of maximum repression. As Paul Alexander writes in his detailed and intimate Dean bio Boulevard of Broken Dreams, "During adolescence, almost every teenage boy feels sexually drawn to another boy at some time. Dean played on this attraction. By doing so, he embraced the uncertain nature of sexuality, which can be profoundly threatening to many people. He also actively cultivated contradictions. He was masculine – there was no doubt about it – yet he was also soft, vulnerable, feminine. The complexity in his sexuality came through in his movie roles. In East of Eden he plays the wounded, vengeful brother who longs to be loved by his father, his brother's girlfriend, and his brother."

As a child, future film director Matthew Mishory was drawn to "Planet Dean" by his immigrant dad's addiction to movies as pain-free English lessons. Eden resonated most strongly, the only one of Dean's three films released during his lifetime. Mishory's debut feature Joshua Tree 1951: A Portrait of James Dean premiered at Frameline in 2012 before an enthusiastic Castro audience. Now on DVD (Wolfe Video), it's a mythic B&W take on the "lost year" when 20-year-old James Byron Dean bummed around Hollywood exchanging blowjobs for professional grooming, flirting with young women on the make, but really getting down-and-dirty with guys: his introvert roommate, a casual beach pickup, and a cynical radio producer with a big pool and a curious infatuation with The Little Prince. This rough-and tumble life is the basis for a bitterly funny desert chat between Dean, on the eve of his explosive debut on Broadway and TV's Golden Age of live dramas, and a frustrated would-be starlet, Violet (Dalilah Rain), now reduced to grooming hot boys for Tinseltown's brutal powerbrokers.

"Shouldn't let guys hit you."

"It hasn't stopped you, has it?"

"Don't you think you're pushing the tough-guy angle a bit hard?"

"Guy's got to be able to take a punch in this town. Beatings, boots, bondage, I've done it all. All the experiences that life has to offer."

"Movie stars don't hang around with the dregs of the earth."

"I'd take the dregs over the powers-that-be any day. I've had to get my cock sucked by every big name in Hollywood."

"That's how the game is played."

There are wonderful pit-stops: hypnotic demonstrations of how method acting can tap into an actor's sense memories to allow the emotional underpinnings of a scene to come alive for an audience; an extended sexual rondo between Dean and a sensitive boy who shares Jimmy's fascination with bull-fighting. There's a funny through-line from Dean's wanting the gory details of a matador's death to his initiating the boy into the joys of anal intercourse.

Half-a-century after his chief rivals for greatest American film actor have lost their luster, Dean remains forever young, forever gay, his patented ability to just be onscreen now the signature of Sundance rebels Dano, Franco and Gordon-Levitt.

Following the 2012 Castro screening, director Mishory conducted a freewheeling conversation in my Market Street flat with two cast members: Dan Glenn, who delivers a discreetly tortured turn as Dean's (James Preston) friend/roommate, and Edward Singletary, Jr., as the powerful Hollywood producer who draws Dean into his circle of "kept" golden boys; and producer Robert Zimmer, Jr. Mishory explained why he set his story in the year before Dean's career popped. "The film is not really a biopic, it's a portrait set specifically in the year before Dean becomes known in any way. The question we wanted to ask is: what are the antecedents of a remarkable life, short and memorable as it might have been?

"Joshua Tree [a National Park encompassing the Mojave Desert near the Inland Empire] is where generations of artists have come, from landscape painters to Gram Parsons, and found inspiration. The only place that reminded me of what it was like to be in Joshua Tree was Iceland. Both are like being on the moon. The desert becomes like the emotional landscape of the movie."

David Lamble: Dan, how did you base your character of Dean's unnamed close friend and roommate?

Dan Glenn: I read a book called Surviving James Dean by William Bast, his real roommate.

This is one of the few Hollywood stories that examines the role of star-makers, groomers, and the casting couch, as it applies to young male stars-in-waiting.

Matthew Mishory: Hollywood doesn't like to demystify itself. You can draw a direct line between 1951 and 2011, when we shot the movie. Those scenes by the pool are the same.

Robert Zimmer, Jr: The business of bringing young boys up into the hills and giving them "Turkish Delight" – some can take it, and some can't. That's been part of the business forever.

Mishory: Hollywood is a machine that eats people alive. Sometimes they're lucky enough to come out the other end. That's really James Dean's story.

Zimmer: James Dean was a hologram, meaning a single object that, depending on the angle you observe it from, appears completely different. This guy was so many different people, and he was authentically each one of those people.

Mishory: He steamrolled through people's lives, and though he may have made a brief impression, it was always an indelible one.

Extras include a theatrical trailer and a short film, Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman.

 






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