DVD Review - A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree, 1951

James Dean starred in only three feature films before he died in 1955 at the age of 24. Based on only those three, it was clear that a great, young talent was lost. In the time since, Dean was revered as an icon and was seen as very influential to a lot of young, white actors. There was a TV biography about his last years on TNT called James Dean (2001) starring James Franco, which focused more on Dean and his relationship or lack thereof with his father. This movie, written and directed by Matthew Mishory, focuses more on Dean and his relationship or lack thereof with his UCLA roommate.

According to a biography book by William Bast, Dean did have a relationship with his UCLA roommate. That relationship was purported to be a gay romance. According to another biography book by Randall Riese, Dean avoided the draft by registering as a homosexual. Nicholas Ray, the director of Dean's most iconic film Rebel Without a Cause, said outright that Dean was gay, so the question of Dean's sexuality has always been out there.

Mishory's movie is more or less, a black-and-white, poetic fantasy that imagines Dean's brief time at UCLA with his roommate, leaning more toward this idea that Dean was gay. James Preston, a former Abercrombie & Fitch model, plays James Dean. The DVD cover and the photo used in all marketing and VOD outlets is a still from the movie of a near nude Preston sunbathing and floating in a pool. The still comes from a scene toward the beginning of Dean at a pool party hosted by a gay man who revels in the eye-candy that Preston's Dean is.

This sets the precedent for the rest of the movie. Mishory clearly wants this movie to appeal to gay men, specifically gay men who have or have had a crush on James Dean. The gay man who hosts the pool party is named Roger, and it's a wonder if he's named after Rogers Brackett, the real-life radio director who mentored Dean when he was a parking lot attendant at CBS Studios. Bast's book talks of a gay relationship between Dean and Brackett as well, but who knows?

Mishory suggests as many have suggested that Dean catered to men like Roger in terms of sexual favors or just being poolside eye-candy in order to get further in his Hollywood career. Even though it's just a passing issue in the Franco version, it's still better or more effectively handled there than here. Other indie gay films have done it better or more effective like Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, The Dying Gaul, or recently Going Down in La-La Land. Mishory's point seems more to show the eye-candy than actually deal with the issue of the gay casting couch.

Mishory introduces Violet, played by Dalilah Rain, at the pool party. Violet develops a quasi-romance with Dean. She's apparently up-and-coming in Hollywood too. She along with Dean and Dean's roommate who isn't given a name, but who's played by Dan Glenn, all travel to Joshua Tree National Park. There's a half-baked love triangle between them with echoes of A Home at the End of the World (2004). A crucial moment is when Violet tells the roommate about his non-future with Dean.

I appreciated Glenn's performance and thought it the best of the three leads. His scene where he basically has to let go of Dean who wants to go to New York is by far the best scene in the movie. He is perhaps the proxy for Mishory and any gay man who watches this movie because as much as they might fantasize about being in bed or having an affair with James Dean, there comes a point where one has to let go.

Two Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains full frontal nudity and graphic sex.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 33 mins.


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