James Dean: Dreams and Sexual Truths

12.21.2012

By Jeremy Kinser

Director Matthew Mishory discusses his stunning (and provocative) film portrait of the late screen icon.

After countless books, documentaries, and film biographies of the gone-too-soon screen rebel James Dean, director Matthew Mishory achieves something close to impossible. With Joshua Tree 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, Mishory offers an unforgettably original and often dream-like look at the pre-fame and sexually adventurous years of the actor as he struggled to make a name for himself in Hollywood. 

Mishory's feature directorial debut, already a hit at film festivals around the globe, goes into limited theatrical release December 12 in Long Beach, Calif., before expanding into other U.S. cities. Set in the early 1950s when the charismatic Indiana native was just another determined hopeful, Mishory’s Dean (embodied by The Gates star James Preston) is a sexually frank portrayal of a young man depending on the kindess of well-to-do gentlemen friends. Mishory tells Out why his film isn't just another biopic and why Dean continues to fascinate us six decades after his death.

Out: Why did you decide to make a film about someone whose life has been covered so thoroughly with other films?
Matthew Mishory: We wanted to make a film that was nothing like all of the previous films that have been made about his life. They’ve all really been perfectly serviceable, very traditional Hollywood biopics, and our film is not. It’s not a biopic. It’s not even really traditionally a biographical film. It’s a portrait, as the title suggests. I think that gave us a little more free reign to find the truth about who this guy actually was and not just as an artist or an actor, but also as a person.

When did you first become aware of Dean?
The very first film I saw as a very little boy was East of Eden. My father had actually come to the U.S. to study music at Julliard when he was 16 and he learned to speak English by going to the movies. He saw all the Dean films on their first run. So the first film I ever saw as a child was East of Eden. So I’ve really been living with the images of James Dean as actor, as icon — but mostly as actor and as a very different kind of actor as I’ve experienced — since I was a little boy, so I think it was almost inevitable that I was going to one day be drawn to make a film about him.

What was your impression of him when you watched East of Eden for the first time?
He was larger than life. That performance is just so very intense and captivating. It’s just an unforgettable performance and all three of them — all three of the film performances he left us are really like that. He was an actor who I think sort of redefined what intensity meant vis-a-vis the screen. When I went back and revisited the films later as a teenager, in film school, and subsequently — I really think he was the first actor to bring realistic and captivating portrayals of young people to screen. That documentary they made years later was very aptly titled. It was called The First American Teenager. There wasn't just an intensity, but also a sort of emotional rawness to his acting that had never really been seen before in Hollywood and while many have tried to emulate it since, it’s never really been fully realized again.

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