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The Controversial Resurrection of James Dean

In a move broadly decried as distasteful, filmmakers plan on digitally resurrecting the actor for a new role on the silver screen

The late star’s “performance” will be crafted with CGI based on footage and photographs of Dean. Another actor will contribute the voice work. (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

James Dean’s death in a car crash at the age of 24 enshrined his name in the cultural consciousness as a symbol of restless, disaffected American youth. Despite the fact that the actor starred in just three films, only one of which had been released at the time of the September 30, 1955, accident, he has endured as a towering Hollywood icon. Now, in a move broadly decried as distasteful, production company Magic City Films is planning to digitally resurrect the actor for a new role on the silver screen.

As the Hollywood Reporter’s Alex Ritman revealed earlier this week, Dean has been “cast” in Finding Jack, an upcoming adaptation of Gareth Crocker’s novel of the same name. The narrative centers on the abandonment of military dogs in the wake of the Vietnam War with a particular focus on one soldier’s refusal to leave his canine companion behind. Dean will play a character named Rogan in a role Ritman describes as a “secondary lead.”

Anton Ernst, who is directing the film alongside Tati Golykh, tells the Hollywood Reporter that his team “searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, which has some extreme complex character arcs, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean.”

The late star’s “performance” will be crafted with CGI based on footage and photographs of Dean. Another actor will contribute the voice work.

Interestingly, Dean’s family actually gave the project the green light.

“The family views this as his fourth movie, a movie he never got to make,” says Ernst. “We do not intend to let his fans down.”

Whether fans will be willing to give the film a chance is another question. News of Dean’s casting has been widely derided, with several prominent actors voicing their concerns.

“This is awful,” wrote Chris Evans, who plays Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, on Twitter. “Maybe we can get a computer to paint us a new Picasso.”

Elijah Wood, best known for his turn as Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, echoed Evans’ sentiment, adding, “NOPE. [T]his shouldn’t be a thing.”

Both of these actors, points out Laura M. Holson for the New York Times, “starred in franchises celebrated for their use of computer-generated imagery.” Still, many critics argue that creating otherworldly CGI creatures for fantasy franchises is different than using the technology to re-animate an actor who has been dead for nearly 65 years. The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage, for instance, called Dean’s casting a “monstrous, legacy-destroying idea.” River Donaghey of Vice, meanwhile, wrote, “[T]ruly, for the love of all that is holy, just let his legacy be.”

This is hardly the first time the entertainment industry has used digital effects to bring a dead celebrity back to life. In 1991, Natalie Cole performed a duet of “Unforgettable” with a hologram of her father, who had died decades earlier. And in the years since, the practice has become increasingly popular, with holograms of beloved musicians like Frank Zappa and Roy Orbison regularly trotted out on successful tours. Next year, fans will be able to see a digital likeness of Whitney Houston perform in concert; an Amy Winehouse hologram tour is also in the works.

Within the film industry, advanced technologies have restored deceased actors to the franchises in which they once starred. After Paul Walker died during the filming of Furious 7, specialists used 350 CGI shots of the actor to digitally insert him into scenes he never had a chance to shoot. Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, reprised his role as Death Star commander Grand Moff Tarkin in the Star Wars franchise thanks to digital technology. In fact, Ben Morris, visual effects supervisor for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, told Inverse’s Ryan Britt last April, “all the lead actors” in the franchise are now digitally scanned.

“We don’t know if we’re going to need them,” Morris explained. “We don’t intentionally scan them as an archive process. It’s for reference later.”

Walker and Cushing were reanimated for roles they’d previously signed up to play. The CGI recreation of Dean, comparatively, manipulates the actor’s image in an entirely new context.

As Sonia Rao writes for the Washington Post, the actor never consented to playing the Finding Jack character.

“Dean’s role in Finding Jack would be more similar to Audrey Hepburn appearing in a 2014 chocolate commercial,” Rao adds, “but as a major character in a feature-length project.”

For his part, Finding Jack co-director Ernst says he has been taken aback by the negative reaction to the announcement. He believes the role of Rogan will fall in line with Dean’s legacy rather than tarnish it.

“If we aren’t doing anything to hurt James Dean’s image, why are people pushing back?” Ernst asked in an interview with the Times. “I’m trying to analyze what the moral issue is here.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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