Makeup and mimicry can only take an actor so far when tasked with playing one of the most enduring stars in the cinematic firmament: More crucial is that he have a certain intangible star quality of his own. Such is the success of Dane DeHaan’s magnetic take on James Dean in “Life,” Anton Corbijn’s engaging, elegiac portrait of a legend in the making. More than a standard celebrity bio, however, the pic is a loving valentine from photographer-turned-helmer Corbijn to his name-making profession, with Robert Pattinson in a sly turn as Dennis Stock, the shutterbug who landed Dean a now-classic Life magazine spread. It’s the peculiarly moving, even subtly queer friendship between the two men that distinguishes “Life” from standard inside-Hollywood fare, while gorgeous production values and ace star turns make it a thoroughly marketable arthouse prospect.
If any current filmmaker is qualified to reflect on the intimate complexities of capturing and crafting star quality through the aperture of a camera lens, it’s the Dutch-born Corbijn — who effectively animated his signature rock-photography aesthetic to track the construction and collapse of an icon in his first stab at showbiz biography, 2007’s Ian Curtis study “Control.” Needless to say, focusing as it does on an industry that prizes heightened glamor over gut-spilling authenticity, “Life” is a sleeker effort all around in tone and texture — shot by gifted Danish d.p. Charlotte Bruus Christensen (“The Hunt”) in minty vintage hues, each frame lit as if it would be cashmere to the touch. Four features into his directorial career, with the smeary autumnal mood of last year’s “A Most Wanted Man” still fresh in the memory, Corbijn is proving a more versatile stylist than his striking debut might have suggested.
Still, it’s not surprising that Dean should interest the helmer as a subject. In the mid-1950s, the high-haired, ill-fated Indiana native was arguably the first rock star of the American film industry, his brief screen career demonstrating the studio system’s attempt to engage with the decade’s reinvention of adolescence — an investment he repaid with his appropriately impetuous refusal to behave like a star under contract. “I just want to do good acting … I’ll go where that takes me,” he replies to a glib journalist’s question prior to the premiere of his star-making role in Elia Kazan’s “East of Eden,” though he’s already encountering the limits of his leash.
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Via a brisk, literate script by Australian writer Luke Davies (best known for the 2006 addiction drama “Candy”), “Life” identifies the key contradiction in Dean’s star persona: A shy, genuinely gifted nonconformist, he was eventually (and posthumously) styled, marketed and managed to appear as untamed and undoctored an individual as possible. Studio chief Jack Warner, lavishly played with a kind of twinkling malice by Ben Kingsley, is initially skeptical: “I’m not sure we should emphasize the rebel in you, Jimmy,” he swipes, all but inviting Dean to place the emphasis himself.
The 26-year-old Stock is similarly at the outset of a promising (and, happily, longer-lived) career in his craft when he encounters Dean at a Nicholas Ray-hosted Chateau Marmont shindig. (Ray glides by with Natalie Wood; aficionados of the era will have a field day with the pic’s plethora of cannily cast cameos in this vein.) The two young men strike up a tentative rapport based, it appears, on a blend of mutual suspicion and attraction.
Stock professes to be intrigued by Dean’s “awkwardness” and “purity.” Dean, for his part, is fascinated by the cameraman’s fascination — as if he might catch a clue to his own identity reflected in the lens — and agrees to be trailed for a photo essay. As Stock and Dean shuffle their way through the Beat bars of New York City and, later, the clapboard heartland of the actor’s home state, the pictures that would later grace a million dorm-room walls emerge with jazzy nonchalance on the part of both artist and model. With invaluable assists from Christensen and production designer Anastasia Masaro, Corbijn delights in slowly piecing together isolated elements from landmark shots within his own frame, guarding his angles until the whole iconic composition shimmers into view.
DeHaan and Pattinson enact this anti-romance beautifully, each man quizzically eyeing the other for leads and clues, while coyly retreating from scrutiny. Pattinson, adding to his post-“Twilight” gallery of sharp-cut screw-ups, brings intriguing layers of childish dysfunction to a character who is only ostensibly the straight man in the partnership. DeHaan, meanwhile, plays Dean as the more openly flirtatious of the two, a flashier generational companion to his louchely inspired Lucien Carr in 2013’s “Kill Your Darlings.”
While he’s far from the first to suggest a distinct fluidity to the star’s sexuality, DeHaan’s is nonetheless a witty, inventive interpretation, exaggerating Dean’s breathy vocal mannerisms and relaxed body language to conjure an aura of studied, open-to-all sensuality. (Warner, at least, candidly picks up the signals, issuing a deadpan threat of sodomy if Dean dares veer from the studio playbook.) Though he’s considerably aided by immaculate costuming and hairstyling, DeHaan doesn’t look much like his subject; his performance glides on its own brand of quicksilver intensity. A riveting sustained monologue on a parent’s passing, delivered by DeHaan with soft, still focus in a train dining car, is a scene Dean might have delivered himself with equivalent concentration, if a different set of inflections.
Below the line, “Life” — not the most evocative title, though a fitting one for a film concerned with both physical and celluloid mortality — is composed and designed with lustrous attention to detail, yet avoids the blandly handsome veneer of many a nostalgic industry picture. Even the covetable city cars, viewed carefully, have surface dents and grazes, while Christensen’s perceptive camera occasionally picks up a smudge on the lens of Dean’s familiar tortoiseshell glasses — in a film wistfully dedicated to ways of seeing, no obstruction to our view goes amiss.