A Portrait of James Dean
Every now and then, a film comes along out of the blue that is fresh, intelligent, challenging and intriguing. Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean is one of those films, and lucky for us, it’s screening at this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Tim Hunter spoke to the writer/director, Matthew Mishory.
Joshua Tree, 1951 is Matthew Mishory’s feature film debut, and paints a speculative portrait of 1950s Hollywood actor James Dean and his life before his all-too-short Hollywood career was cut short by his death at the age of 24. And because little was known about Dean’s early years, Mishory has been able to explore Dean’s ambiguous sexuality.
It may be Mishory’s first feature film, but he has been busy making short films – the latest of which was Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman, an imagined biography of the queer British filmmaker, which trod similar territory.
“I was making short films, each one bigger than the last,” explains Mishory on the phone from Mexico, where he was attending yet another film festival with his latest film, “and then the Derek Jarman short played to two sold-out sessions at the British Film Institute, which got it a permanent place in the BFI’s National Archive. That got it a lot of attention, and from there I was able to make this film.”
Speaking of which, there’s something about Joshua Tree, 1951, that’s reminiscent of Jarman’s films, in particular his 1991 reimagining of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, which saw the English king in a love affair with one of his lords.
“I studied film theory as well, and I really liked his approach to history and the way it can be told and retold, so yes, I do owe a debt to Jarman. That was a story about people that were long dead, but we were fortunate enough to be able to speak to people who are still alive and remember James Dean and the time, and that lends my film some authority.”
Given that Joshua Tree, 1951 is part dreamscape, part speculative biography and part homage to 1950’s Hollywood and Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, how much of it is true, how much is speculation, and how much of it is, well, wishful thinking?
“It’s interesting, because the parts that people think are fabricated are not, and the scenes that have that air of truth about them exist in an alternate version of the truth. The sequences around the Joshua Tree in the desert, for example, while they serve as a metaphor, have their origin in a kernel of truth. There was a time, after Dean had been working all winter in New York in the theatre, that a Hollywood studio did send him into the Californian desert with his roommate to ‘tan up’ for his next feature film. ‘Fact’ is so messy and contradictory, so what I’ve tried to do is aim for a sense of truth of that era in Hollywood.”
The film effortlessly evokes those alluring images of 50s Hollywood opulence, especially the scenes set in Dean’s ‘benefactor’ Roger’s luxurious mansion, complete with requisite languid pool parties populated by naked and near-naked men and women.
“Those pool parties are an interesting example, because today, the 1950s are seen as a very conservative time, but the truth is that they were a very sexually liberal time; it’s just that it all happened at private parties behind closed doors.”
Other areas of Mishory’s inspiration include the style of still photography of the time and other films that play with their biographical nature, such as Swoon (Tom Kalin, 1992) and I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)and told the stories in interesting ways.
Playing the crucial role of Jimmy Dean himself is a young actor James Preston, cast after a traditional casting call and audition process.
“He’s a kid from Texas who moved to LA to become an actor and found his way without being connected to any big Hollywood films, and I felt there was an interesting synergy there. In a certain light and angle, he was very evocative of those iconic images of James Dean.”
With James Dean being a Hollywood legend, albeit an elusive and short-lived one, there was bound to be a few ruffled feathers here and there about the way he’s portrayed in Joshua Tree, 1951.
“There were scattered murmurs of disapproval here and there, but the audiences are generally supportive, but my response to criticisms is that James Dean was not an ordinary man living an ordinary life, and it doesn’t really make sense to make an ordinary film about him,” says Mishory. “There are many different ways to tell a story, and I’ve tried to make a film about a man finding his heart as an artist.”
Along with beginning to direct TV commercials to make a living, Mishory has finished a documentary, and is in pre-production on a new feature film, a political thriller featuring the openly gay grandson of James Mason (and son of Belinda Carlisle), James Duke Mason.
“So I’m doing bigger projects, but still very edgy.”
Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait Of James Dean, Saturday March 23, 10:30 PM ACMI Cinema 2, Federation Square, mqff.com.au
(Image - James Preston as James Dean)