Life (2015)


Recreating a brief episode in James Dean’s life, Anton Corbijn’s Life sees the icon on the cusp of fame thanks to a series of photographs for Life magazine.

A Most Wanted Man

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Life is both the American magazine and also the film based on the true story of a brief slice of James Dean’s life six months before he died. East Of Eden is about to be released and movie insiders know it will make him a star. But he’s a rebel, bucking against the all-powerful, controlling studio system of the time, as personified by a menacing Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley).

At the poolside bar at director Nicholas Ray’s Hollywood party, he’s approached by needy freelance photographer Dennis Stock, a young man setting out to make a name for himself. Stock thinks he sees a “purity” in Dean, “something you can’t fake”, which his intuition tells him to capture. On a whim, seemingly wanting to know why Stock is so fascinated by him, Dean arranges to meet him the next day. That’s the start of the symbiotic relationship that’s central to the film. Not quite a friendship, and only indirectly hinting at an attraction, the two need each other. One is inexorably approaching fame, one wants fame. For the first time, Dean seemed to combine youth with fame, and the power of the media was just starting to make itself felt. In some undefined way, each knows the other has the power to make their career. The result of this complex bond was an iconic photoessay on the “moody new star” for Life magazine, which did indeed do just that.

To get his pictures, Stock doggedly pursued Dean from Los Angeles to his bolthole in New York, and to stay with him and his close family where he grew up, a farm in Indiana, where some of the most personal pictures were taken. On the way, the two meet a roster of stars of the time – Dean’s co-star Natalie Wood (Lauren Gallagher), girlfriend Pier Angeli (Alessandra Mastronardi), friend Eartha Kitt (Kelly McCreary) with whom he dances in a black bar and a visit to the Actor’s Studio with Lee Strasberg (Nicholas Rice). The 1955 period detail and settings exude authenticity.

As Dean, Dane DeHaan (Lucien Carr in Kill Your Darlings and soon to be seen in Tulip Fever) gives a mannered performance, with the same look and mumbled tones. He’s a believably tormented, new kind of star, wanting to be a serious actor but struggling to cope with the realisation that he’s about to become famous, sealed when he gets the news that he’s got the lead in Rebel Without A Cause. Robert Pattinson as Stock is low key, determined, yet trying to hide his naked desperation to get what he wants. In real life, Stock went on to have a successful career as a photojournalist and died in 2010 at the age of 82, while Dean died six months later in a car crash aged 24.

Director Anton Corbijn (espionage thriller A Most Wanted Man, 2014) is himself a photographer of musicians, especially Joy Division and director of the Ian Curtis biopic Control, so should have an affinity with photography to bring to the movie. Yet though shining an original spotlight on an intriguing footnote to history, the film seems slow paced and lacking in focus. For a film centred on an apparently symbiotic relationship, it seems to be rather lacking in chemistry between its two principals.

Life is released on 25th September 2015 in the UK

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