Dennis and Dean
“Life” chronicles the story behind the 1955 “Life” magazine photo spread by Dennis Stock of young star, James Dean. It lets us look at the life of Dean as a gifted, but troubled man. Even though James Dean made only three films, he captured the attention of the world. Yet at age 24, Dean was dead. Nonetheless those three movies were enough for him to become a Hollywood legend. He epitomized young angst and for many he was a symbol of having “made it”. Part of that legend were the iconic photos of Dennis Stock. Director Anton Corbijn’s “Life” is a look at the relationship between photographer and subject.
Photographer Stock (Robert Pattinson) assigns himself to a coy Dean (Dane DeHaan) and takes a bunch of photos. Questions immediately arise about the wariness of these young men and if are they flirting with each other? There is that possibly, but it was 1955 and the controlling force of Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley) was not about letting anything interfere with his movies. It was “known” that Dean had a girlfriend. However, as the professional relationship between the two men grew, so did their personal relationship and it allowed Stock to visit the Dean family farm, spend time with the actor, and take those iconic photos.
Pattinson is fine as the hungry yet guarded Stock, a man desperate to make a name for himself but wary of smothering his subject in the process. However, the film belongs to DeHaan as Dean possibly because he is playing James Dean but even more so because he such a good actor in this role. There is something of an intangible quality to his interpretation of Dean that speaks to the elusive actor without simply being evasive.
Photographed in director Corbijn’s decisive and haunting visual style, we get a fascinating character portrait. However, since neither Stock nor Dean had, nor could have had, any understanding of the mythology they were building therefore all of the flirty, elusive and haunting moments just add to the portrait of a photo shoot. And not to the relationship of the two men. The excitement here comes because of the time and unfortunately that is not the story we get here.
Corbjin and screenwriter Luke Davis do not seem to want to see what was behind those photos while what we want to see is the man behind the myth. Then again Dean died at 24 so maybe there was nothing there. Leaving that alone, the film is gorgeous, a visual feast. Corbijn, is himself a world famous photographer known for working with everyone from Bob Dylan to U2 so it came as no surprise that he chose to direct a film about photographer Dennis Stock. The film is a small one that is an eloquently expressed drama of two men whose lives cross and how they effect each other’s futures and with one of them destined to become a Hollywood icon.
DeHaan has been wonderfully transformed into James Dean and at times it is uncanny to watch him. There’s something about the way DeHaan he embodies Dean that we forget that we are not watching the real thing. We don’t even think about DeHaan since we totally accept him as Dean. with his soft, ethereal voice and narrowed eyes. When we first meet him here, he has just finished filming “East of Eden” and his stardom is at his feet.
Dean meets Stock, an ambitious young photographer who is desperate to prove himself. He’s also divorced with a young son, but these issues do not seem to affect him. We see him as driven and tired of having to hang on behind red ropes at premières, snapping stars for cheap magazines. He wants to be an artist and so offers images of Dean (which he didn’t yet have) to “Life Magazine” for a profile piece. We see Stock as ever present, hawking the fledgling star from the shadows and desperate to capture Dean’s rebellious spirit. Pattinson recognized the feelings that Dean had to deal with as he too as a young star, has had the same kind of adventures.
Corbijn explores the relationship between photographer and subject. Stock blurs the line between wanting Jimmy as a friend and as a subject. And this is where the film truly shines: this is a film that looks at the space between two artists. It is fun to look at actors portraying the stars of that period— Dean dances with Eartha Kitt (Kelly McCreary) in a dive bar, socializes with Lee Strasberg (Nicholas Rice) and is bawled out by an irate Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley). This is also a dramatic thesis on the idea of show business and voyeurism as it explores the brief friendship between a man who had fame thrust upon him and another who would feed of that fame.