Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait Of James Dean
Much like "My Week with Marilyn" took one small part of Marilyn’s life and created a partly truthful, partly fictional story around it, Matthew Mishory has done the same for James Dean with "Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean." Here, he creates a poetic dreamscape to explore the time right before James Dean hit it big.
While rumors of Dean’s sexuality and use by the Hollywood gay elite have surrounded him for decades, nothing is entirely certain. Nonetheless, Mishory has taken those rumors and run with it. In doing so, he has crafted a gorgeously shot meditation on Hollywood in the 50’s and what it was like to be a gay actor trying to make it in the industry.
Using stark black and white, Mishory’s film looks like a part noir/part Ansel Adams experiment that surprisingly goes right. This choice might not be for everyone, but when a film is this beautiful, it’s hard to ignore.
James Preston (oddly, a dead ringer for a young Marlon Brando) stars as James Dean, here a kid just out of school and trying to make it in Hollywood. He meets a guy in class (known only as "The Roommate") played by hunky Dan Glenn. Dean, being the guy that could sell you a bucket of water in a rainstorm, convinces The Roommate to get an apartment together while they continue to take acting classes and pursue their dreams. Somehow, Dean has befriended a gay producer named Roger (Edward Singletary) with a penchant for pool-parties inhabited by hot naked men and scantily clad starlet/fag-hags. Knowing this might be his way into stardom, Dean endures Roger’s advances in order to secure a future.
Meanwhile, Dean has indiscriminate sex with men on the side, with an occasional stop in hetero-ville if only to get something that he wants from the girl in question. It’s never totally clear which side of the fence Dean’s true preferences lay, mostly because Dean, himself, remains an enigma. Here, he is played as a man who will do whatever he can to get to the place he wants to be. He even admits he’ll give these Hollywood hitters what they want in order to have what he wants. He knows his sexual worth and plays that card like a pro. As Roger’s go-to gal Violet (Dalilah Rain) admits, "James belongs to no one."
But that’s not entirely true, as Dean does have feelings for The Roommate who clearly reciprocates them. But fear and different agendas keep these men from truly allowing their feelings to show. Whether or not they will ever be able to admit their longing is the underlying tension that hangs like a heavy fog throughout the film.
There is no definitive plot per se, and it is so over-stylized that some might find it distancing, but the film is still has a curious way of being affecting. Sure there’s the superficial enjoyment of seeing James Dean getting it on with hot strangers (one scene looks lifted from a homoerotic Abercrombie photo shoot), but we are also rooting for him to make it - even though we know the outcome. There’s a sadness that permeates the film, too, because we know how it short his life would be, and because - if Dean was truly gay - the inability for him to have a love he clearly needs is heartbreaking. This is where the film succeeds and Preston’s Dean pulls us in and makes us care.
Out of all of the film fest films currently on the circuit, "Joshua Tree, 1951" was the one that stayed with me most - long after the film ended. And I challenge you to find a better-looking film so far this year. For the visuals alone, I recommend it. But there’s much more here to appreciate and it harkens a filmmaker whose next work I’m curious to see.
This article is part of our "Philadelphia Qfest 2012" series. Want to read more?
Here's the full list»