SIFF Film Review – Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean
James Dean was strongly rumored to have been gay or at least bi-sexual. Generations of film students have read much into Dean’s relationship with Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. Along with Marilyn Monroe, James Dean has always been one of the stylish gay community icons from the 1950s.
According to the new film Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, which is playing at the Seattle International Film Festival, James Dean’s homosexuality is far more than rumor. This film focuses on the actor before he became famous. While his talent awakens in intense acting classes, the film shows him hopping from lover to lover. Sometimes he sleeps with Hollywood moguls to purposely advance his career. Other times, he acts on simple attraction while picking up the stray young man. All the while he lives with his faithful roommate, who knows that Dean sleeps around but who remains true. This man loves James.
Joshua Tree, 1951 is the kind of slow, pretentious art house film general audiences often associate with the art-house/film festival circuit. It’s filmed in black and white with frequent use of self-important slow motion. Everything is supposed to be deep and meaningful. But just because you have characters quoting Rimbeaud and citing their love of Hemingway doesn’t mean your film is deep. James Dean was more than a pretty face. There was thought and emotion going on behind his façade. And while this film thinks it’s showing us that inner life, mostly it just portrays Dean as a sexually charged façade.
Part of the problem is with James Preston as James Dean. The filmmakers do everything they can to make him look as much like the famous star from the outside as possible. But none of the actual star’s magnetism comes through. We in the audience just don’t believe that the guy in this film is James Dean. You can’t just have a cigarette hanging out of the mouth of a guy with a red coat on and swoopy hair and instantly have a screen legend.
To the film’s credit, at least these gay characters have actual sex lives. While this was the ’50s, when all gay activity had to be on the down low, they do show a lot of how men used to hook up with each other. These are attractive guys going at it. Even if a mainstream Hollywood movie has gay characters, most of the time their relationships are very chaste, so as not to rattle the audience. And on that level, if you are up for watching some titillation, well, this may be the movie for you.
However, the narrative doesn’t go anywhere. Long scenes in the desert (hence the title) are interspersed with random unidentified sexual liaisons. Well-groomed men stare longingly at each other. And that Cartman line from South Park comes to mind: “No, dude, independent films are those black and white hippie movies. They’re always about gay cowboys eating pudding.”
Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean screens today at Harvard Exit .
Final Grade: D+