Let’s Not Kid Ourselves – James Dean, the Original Rebel, Would be Mad as Hell Right Now
James Byron Dean stormed New York City and Hollywood in the early to mid-1950s, revolutionizing the way in which audience’s perceived acting and adding immeasurably to the film world with three beautiful films – East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant – before tragically losing his life in a senseless car accident on September 30, 1955. He was just twenty four and though his legacy was the three aforementioned films along with notable Broadway work in Come See the Jaguar and The Immoralist, along with a passel of quality work in the early NYC television scene, the shadow he cast was long and profound, echoing in the work of future actors such as Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, River Phoenix and Leonardo DiCaprio. “If a man can bridge the gap between life and death,” the Dean Myth Making Machine suggests he said at some point (although it’s always seemed to me like one of those quotes that may be too good to be true), “if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man.”
While Dean may indeed have uttered the above words that were destined to plaster many a college dorm room wall, it’s highly unlikely he was referring to the news that broke earlier last week about his posthumous casting in an upcoming Vietnam War related film called Finding Jack. You’ve read correctly, dear reader: Over sixty four years after his passing, the rebel that out rebelled Hollywood contemporaries such as Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando is being brought back to the silver screen not by another actor portraying him in a biopic, but rather thanks to the devices of CGI technology that will use actual footage of Dean. The Hollywood Reporter elaborated further, stating that the man who was Jett Rink will be recreated for 21st century audiences via full body CGI using the aforementioned footage of him along with photographs.
This news gave me more than slight pause, as it seems to open up a whole big can of worms about what rights an actor has once they’ve sambaed off to the Great Unknown. Full disclosure time: I’ve long been a tremendous admirer of James Dean, having once made a ten hour road trip to visit his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana and pay my respects at his gravesite. Yeah, I’m that sort of fan. So when this news came trickling down the grapevine a few days back, my reaction was always going to be either one of sheer elation (“Yay, Jimmy’s back in a new movie! Take that, Timothee Chalamet!”) or one of utter horror (“But…but, why?!?”). After forty six years of taking up space on the planet it came as no surprise to me that I fell into the latter category and here’s why:
James Dean, in part, made his reputation by plowing through the Hollywood caste system and restructuring it to suit his peculiar and very real sort of acting. The man zoomed in and around the Hollywood Hills on souped up motorcycles and sports cars, terrorizing the establishment with his daredevil acting and lifestyle choices. And he was no man’s patsy; during the filming of his last film, 1956’s Giant, he famously locked horns with director George Stevens from things as big as how he saw his character of Jett Rink to as small and insignificant as how his character would enter a room (not really such a small thing when you think about it). At one point, things grew so tense with Hollywood legend Stevens and Hollywood bad boy Dean that the actor was a no-show for a crucial day of shooting. This was apparently comeuppance for a director that, although brilliant in his filmmaking, lacked the empathy of Nick Ray and Elia Kazan, Dean’s earlier collaborators on East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause.
Now, with the news of a CGI Dean about to make the rounds, it seems almost like a cruel bit of payback from an industry that barely understood him and tolerated him when he was alive, yet allowed his eccentricities because the camera loved him and he managed the neat trick of connecting to a disaffected audience that was eager to see something of their own reality on the big screen. This translated to dollar signs for Warner Brothers (Dean’s home studio) and, as most of us know, money forgives a lot as far as the Hollywood gatekeepers are concerned. With his untimely passing, other actors fought to fill the vacuum left by his absence, yet no one has ever quite measured up to his live fast and die young persona. The CGI shtick finally allows a Hollywood that could never control him while he was alive effectively do so in his death. No more worries about whether their actor will fail to show for a day’s shooting in a petulant act of defiance. Salary negotiations, too, should prove no problem when the producer’s for this new venture have secured the likeness rights for a flat rate with no need to worry about such trifles as points or backend deals. The once unconquerable rebel has apparently been felled not by an unruly gang of juvenile delinquents, an unfeeling mother and father or an entitled land baron (looking at you, Jordan “Bick” Benedict), but rather cold and impersonal technology. Friedrich Nietzsche once famously said that, “There is a certain right by which we many deprive a man of life, but none by which we may deprive him of death; this is mere cruelty.” Amen and a hearty and somber seconded from this corner of the Peanut’s Gallery.
I need to say that the plot of Finding Jack is one as a card carrying animal lover that intrigues me without any mention of James Dean. The story is Vietnam War era and really centers on the abandonment and ultimately search for a beloved dog by an American soldier. Producers have noted that “James Dean” will have a secondary role in the film and that everything is truly above board as they’ve secured proper permissions from many of the surviving Dean family members through Dean’s representation, Curtis Management. The media circus that has sprung up as a result of this so-called casting will certainly raise an awareness of this project that it might not otherwise have, but the dreamer in me would like to believe that there would surely be another means in which to engage an audience for this otherwise fascinating and poignant story that doesn’t involve exhuming James Dean.
But let’s not make any bones about this, film fans – it’s impossible to envision any scenario where the spirit of our beloved original rebel would be anything but horrified at this development. Not to mention the ethical questions that are now posed with using a deceased actor in a fairly significant film role. This is miles away from Gene Kelly in a Volkswagen commercial or John Wayne in a Coors Light ad. This is testing our resolve as a people and a society and begs the question, “How far are we willing to go?” While I’ll always lament not getting a fourth authentic Dean picture or a version of Interview With the Vampire with River Phoenix as the intended interviewer, I have to admit that for myself at least, this new technological journey is one not worth the miles it puts on us and our morals. And with all respect to the Dean family who approved this usage, it adds extra pathos to one of Dean’s seminal lines in the excellent film Rebel Without a Cause: “You’re tearing me apart!”.