It probably goes without saying that humanity is rife with ambition.
From crawling out of the primordial ooze and evolving into higher lifeforms with free will through to building complex, enduring and not-so-enduring civilisations, people in general have displayed an admirable ability to keep forging ahead no matter what obstacles may fall across their path.
It’s a theme explored, though without the evolutionary underpinnings, in Anton’s Corbijn’s remarkably original biopic on James Dean, Life, a film that explores how one person interprets that ceaseless drive we all have to go somewhere, to make a mark, to do what we love.
In Dean’s case, it manifests itself as a pure desire simply to act, to express the inner thespian; the expression of his art is enough for this young man who, in early 1955 and with the release of his second film East of Eden looming, is on the cusp on great society-shaping stardom.
Dean, played with softly-spoken, charismatic authority by Dane DeHaan, whose drawl illuminates the deep-thinking, family-centric soul within, wants none of the trappings that comes with the storied acting career he longs for so intently.
In fact, so averse is he to the siren call of celebrity that he regularly skips town to avoid big showy premieres of his movies, and unconsciously self-sabotages interviews which the ruthless head of Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley) must pay a high price to cover up to keep his unwilling movie star on track for super stardom.
His actions are no doubt partly driven by petulance and immaturity certainly, and perhaps if he had been older and wiser than 24, he might have found a way to have his artistic cake and eat it too, but much of it comes from a self-stated desire to simply act and see where it takes him.
His approach to fame and fortune stands in marked contrast to Dennis Stock (James Patterson), a highly-ambitious photographer with Magnum Photos Agency, who is anxious to leave the world of movie stills and red carpet photography behind him in pursuit of more serious work.
Work like photographing an up-and-coming star like James Dean, who Stock believes is going to be very big indeed, for a LIFE magazine photo essay.
It takes some doing to convince his boss John G. Morris (Joel Edgerton) that Dean warrants this kind of treatment, and that even if he does, Stock is the man for such an undertaking, but Stock’s tenacity, his need to make a name for himself, wins out and he sets about convincing a publicity-shy Dean to play ball with the celebrity Babylon he’s worked so assiduously to avoid.
Things don’t go well at first, even though the two men share a purity of artistic purpose, largely because while Dean eschews the trappings of ambition realised, Stock is happy to wholeheartedly embrace them unreservedly.
It leads to a weird love/hate dynamic to their brief “friendship” with Dean challenging Stock repeatedly about why he should cooperate with the photo essay since fame is coming to him anyway – even if he doesn’t want it – and he accuses the endlessly tenacious photographer of only going after the assignment so hard because it will primarily benefit him.
That’s largely true of course but the back and forth between the two men, which does include its share of tender, connected moments where both realise they do have some things in common, a detente emerges, photos are taken on an unscheduled trip back to Dean’s hometown and the nearby farm he grew up on, and fame, inevitably ensues for both men.
That it ends only 6 months later for Dean is a matter of historical record but as with Marilyn Monroe and the pantheon of stars killed in their prime, his premature passing only served to enhance the very fame and adulation he sought to escape while he was alive.
What makes Life such a pleasure to watch, in addition to its insightful commentary on the vagaries and price of fame and ambition, is the way Corbijn focuses on just a few short months in Dean’s life, allowing us to fully appreciate how the Hollywood machine affected a young actor with talent to burn but no taste for the celebrity schlock that went along with the acting he loved so much.
During the film’s languidly-paced running time, less time is given over to ticking off events from Dean’s life than to the relationships that mattered to him, particularly his family who he loved as fiercely as they loved him, and small pivotal moments than defined his approach to a career that demands a great deal of those who succeed at it, and even those who don’t.
The cinematography is exquisite, thanks to Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s keen artistic key, the unfolding of events perfectly paced, and the performances real and grounded in a way that suggests, in a way many biopics fail to do, that we are dealing with real people living quite unreal, almost extraordinary, lives.
Life is one of those rare movies that appreciates that stories of fame and ambition are often less about the baubles and trappings of celebrity than they are about the struggles of people to reconcile the wholly unusual subsequent demands of their chosen profession with the purity of endeavour and intent that launched them into it in the first place.