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Deeply cynical: Why Hollywood should not resurrect James Dean

If you were to ask me who would be appearing in a new Vietnam War film, it would be a long time before I thought of James Dean, an actor who died more than 60 years ago. It has been announced however that the 50s icon will be digitally recreated in order to play a supporting role in the upcoming Finding Jack, a move that has received essentially nothing but negative reception, and is looking to be one of the most ghoulish things Hollywood has ever done.

The combination of his reputation and his tragic death meant that he lived on as an icon ever since

James Dean was famously known as Hollywood’s rebel – he was young, attractive and full of swagger, and fans loved him. He made three films – Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden and Giant – before his premature death in a car crash in 1955. He was aged just 25, and the combination of his reputation and his tragic death meant that he lived on as an icon ever since. Still, this is 2019, and there’s not a grave that won’t be plundered if people can make a quick buck, so Dean is metaphorically being dug up to ‘star’ in his fourth film.

This isn’t the first time that actors have been recreated through CGI. In Rogue One, a combination of physical stand-ins and special effects were used to bring Peter Cushing back to life as Grand Moff Tarkin. A similar approach recreated Paul Walker in Furious 7, who tragically died in a car crash before the film was completed. But, in both of these instances, the recreations were narratively justified and necessary – ­Rogue One essentially ends where Star Wars: A New Hope begins and, given that the villain’s plot deals with some of the leading figures of the Empire, the exclusion of Tarkin would have raised questions. Similarly, Brian O’Connor (Walker’s character) was an integral part of the Fast & Furious series, which has always pushed the importance of family, so it wouldn’t have been in character for O’Connor to just vanish.

It’s deeply cynical, a tacky gimmick designed to push ticket sales

Much of the recreation was tastefully done, a chance for the character to retire. However, tasteful is not the word here – it’s deeply cynical, a tacky gimmick designed to push ticket sales, because who won’t be curious to see how successful the CGI is?

Strikingly, the film’s director Anton Ernst doesn’t understand the negative reaction to this move. He told The Hollywood Reporter that he was “saddened” and “confused” by comments, stating: “We don’t really understand it. We never intended for this to be a marketing gimmick.” Mark Roseler, the chairman and chief executive of CMG Worldwide (the company that represents Dean’s family), thought that Dean would love it: “What was considered rebellious in the ‘50s is very different than what is rebellious today, and we feel confident that he would support this modern-day act of rebellion.” I feel like Dean would be more interested in not having his grave robbed to flog tickets to a film, but that’s just me.

How can it possibly be right to use a long-dead actor as a marketing tool?

And the worst thing of all – this is just the beginning. Worldwide XR, the company behind the actual CGI that will be used, has the rights to more than 1700 famous historical personalities, including Burt Reynolds, Ingrid Bergman, Neil Armstrong and Bette Davis. They want to bring as many of them back to life as possible – according to its CEO Travis Cloyd, “influencers will come and go, but legends will never die”. And, on James Dean in particular, “there is a lot more to come.”

There are tons of issues raised by this decision – how can actors compete if directors can just build exactly who they want, or how will these CGI actors be credited? Should a couple of distant relatives of James Dean be allowed to use his likeness like this? Will Dean’s legacy be raised or harmed by Finding Jack? But all of these questions are really secondary to the moral issues – how can it possibly be right to use a long-dead actor as a marketing tool (and, no matter what the director says, that’s all this film will be known for)? It’s exploitative and in horrible taste, and a moral Hollywood would have nipped this idea in the bud as soon as it could.

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