This fictionalised account of the actor James Dean’s friendship with Life Magazine photographer Dennis Stock features a stand-out performance from Dane DeHaan as the ‘icon of cool’, ably supported by a very ‘uncool’ Robert Pattinson. Life is beautifully shot, but unlike Stock’s real photographs, which are shown at the end of the film, its surfaces do not convey hidden depths or profound truths.
In a breakout role for DeHaan he plays Dean with a magnetic stillness. We admire Jimmy’s laid-back wit, charm and spontaneity, and fall a bit in love with him like all the girls (and many of the boys) he meets. With his woozy drawl, chirruping laugh, dimples and dishevelled quiff, DeHaan is a dead ringer for the 1955 Dean. On the eve of global fame, we are given an intimate glimpse of an off-duty Hollywood star, being a beatnik in New York, relaxing at home on the family farm in Indiana or visiting a High School hop.
By contrast, Pattinson’s Stock is socially awkward, stressed-out and desperate to get his big break. He knows that Dean might be the start of something special – the ‘symbol of a new movement’ – and that if he can capture Dean’s charisma, then this will kick-start his photographic career. Much of the first half of Life is concerned with Stock trying to persuade the reluctant, evasive and unreliable actor to pose for him. Or, as Dean explains it later to his grandfather, ‘following me around New York like a lost puppy’.
Ben Kingsley gives an entertaining turn as studio boss Jack Warner, exuding gangster-like menace in his efforts to control Dean’s rebellious tendencies. ‘I’ve got a ton of stuff lined up for you,’ promises Warner. ‘Sounds heavy,’ replies Dean. Warner phones the actor to tell him that he’s got the lead role in Rebel Without a Cause: ‘I’m approving it … this means I believe in you. We scratch your back …’ ‘Is that even hygienic?’ retorts Dean, quick as a flash
The film’s witty screenplay is full of one-liners and ‘deep’ observations on life, but these feel superficial – fine words that sound good but don’t go to the heart. For example, when Dean’s girlfriend asks him why he is sad, he replies ‘I’m one orgasm behind you and one step closer to death.’
Both actor and photographer agree that ‘good stuff’ is elusive. The same thing goes for Life’s director, Anton Corbijn, a professional photographer himself, who struggles to make the two men’s relationship mean anything beyond the professional. They need each other for a while, but they do not spark off each other. The real-life friendship was, essentially, just business.
There is a painterly composition evident in many of Corbijn’s images: Dean in the snow in Central Park, with sky-scrapers looming out of the mist; Stock and his young son, from behind, sitting side-by-side on a park bench; beautiful New York street scenes showcasing classic 50s cars and taxi cabs. Perhaps the film’s most arresting image is an extreme close-up of what looks like a glowing red jewel, which slowly resolves itself into the filament of Stock’s dark room light bulb.
Before his tragic death three months after the events depicted in Life, James Dean became a worldwide star with the film East of Eden. Dennis Stock, too, enjoyed widespread acclaim and a long career as a Magnum photographer.