For James Dean’s birthday: An essay I wrote about Rebel Without a Cause, when the new restoration was released theatrically in 2013.
I first saw Rebel Without a Cause when I was the general age of the main characters in the film. Although I was a child of the 70s, and an adolescent of the 80s, it felt like it expressed to me what life felt like in those difficult years. I had it good. I had parents who loved me and supported me, friends, and everything else. But I was an intense and sensitive child, a sponge to the influences upon me (mostly gotten from literature and film). And the sense of yearning that comes with being a teenager, the sense of “divine dissatisfaction” (to quote Martha Graham) which can give even pleasing things an existential ache, reaches its high baroque stage in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause. The film is baroque almost to the point of decadence, drenched in symbolic colors, and images evocative of the crucifixion and resurrection (the whole thing takes place on Easter weekend), and it mainlines into the mother lode of anxiety and frustrated sexuality that runs at such a heightened pitch in adolescents due to hormones and the fact that nobody at that age has enough life experience to know that “this too shall pass”.
(One small side note: I have read every book I can get my hands on about James Dean, about this film, etc. I know all the anecdotes, all the small cast members’ experiences, what the shoot was like. This is another thing that I had to almost forcibly get out of the way in order to even be able to see the film fresh. It comes with so many associations and stories attached.)
Of course when Rebel Without a Cause was first released, it was touted as almost a sociological study of Juvenile Delinquency and what it signified in our culture, which does the film a disservice and misses some of its finer points. But that’s no surprise. The youth culture was exploding, and there were lots of teenagers hanging around in an era of new prosperity with money in their pockets, tons of leisure time, and so, naturally, lots of stuff started happening on a much larger scale, due to the sheer force of their demographic numbers. Elvis Presley was already starting that seismic shift down South, and while he wouldn’t explode to national prominence until the year following (1956), the process was well on its way. There were other harbingers of things to come, in movies like The Wild One (1953), with Marlon Brando’s famous rejoinder to the question, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”: “Whattya got?” Newspapers and preachers and teachers-associations agonized over what was afflicting the nation’s youth. It was also an era of tremendous conformity on an almost invisible level, so all-encompassing was it. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is an opus to what that kind of institutional societal conformity can do to the individual. And it is true that one cannot exactly point to the problem. It is pervasive, Big Brother-ish in nature, a culture devoted to the illusion that we are all the same. If you have the time, I go into all of this in this post about Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in September, 1956, especially in the section where I discuss Dorothy Sarnoff’s appearance on the same show and what that showed about the absolutely fascistic propaganda-level of Gender Roles at that time. Pervasive. To see her back to back with Elvis shows you just how much he toppled. To quote Lester Bangs in his famous obituary for Elvis:
Lenny Bruce demonstrated how far you could push a society as repressed as ours and how much you could get away with, but Elvis kicked “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” out the window and replaced it with “Let’s fuck.” The rest of us are still reeling from the impact.
Rebel Without a Cause is one of those films that may be difficult to remove from its context, not to mention the fact that its young star, James Dean, died one month before its release. The impact of his death was seismic. Martin Sheen describes feeling like he was lost: who was there to look up to now as an actor? Elvis cried when James Dean died. Already, with East of Eden, James Dean had made an electric impression. And, creepily, the films kept coming after he passed: first Rebel, then Giant, Dean’s power resonating from beyond the grave. Dying young is a sure way to ensure immortality, but “dying young” cannot fully explain the impact Dean’s acting had on the youth of the time. It existed before he died, and that is important to keep in mind. His death just intensified what was already there.
The other young stars, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, also came to untimely and violent ends, which may be gruesome to even dwell on, but it’s present in my feelings about the film. That knowledge hovers like a ghostly afterimage.
There is a haunting quality to the movie, overall, a true strangeness that makes it far more than just a presentation of What Is Wrong With Kids Today? Rebel is not literal in any way, shape, or form. It doesn’t feel “ripped from the headlines” the way other films addressing similar topics did at the time. Instead, it tiptoes towards and around a bombed-out landscape of existential dread and fatalism, with a doom-ridden end-of-the-world awareness licking at that generation’s heels, following the bombs exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like Hamlet, another existential worrier, these kids in the film felt life was “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable”. What does any of it matter anyway if some World Leader on the other side of the globe could push a button and vaporize us in moments? All of that seeps through the film like an invisible poison gas, inhibiting our relationships to one another, our ability to connect.
Look at the framing there, the placement of the bodies, the barriers between them (and between us, we can’t see some of their faces), and yet the way they are framed connects them, almost against their will. Bound together.
It doesn’t matter that these are not kids from the wrong side of the tracks. As a matter of fact, that is one of the reasons why the film is potentially so disturbing if you are invested in the status quo because there is not an easy diagnosis. You can’t point the finger at what is wrong. Rebel Without a Cause is bold and dark enough to suggest that what is wrong is how our culture is set up in the first place, its intimacy, claustrophobia, and the premium it puts on fitting in, and also that what is wrong doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. We are all made up of star dust and to star dust we will return. We are a blip on the radar screen of the universe. None of it matters. Perhaps loving one another and being kind to one another does matter (as Jim’s kindness to Plato shows, as Judy’s kindness to Plato shows), but it doesn’t alter the course of events, it doesn’t change a damn thing. The film is a vision of dark hopelessness, that startled me even more when I just saw it at a press screening last week. In that context, the most important scene in the film could be the field trip to the planetarium.
Rebel is totally out of tune with anything that could be described as properly American. It’s totes French, in other words. Or should I say: Tôtes?
A great example of all of this happens on the night of the chickie run. The school thug, Buzz (Corey Allen, excellent), has been bullying Jim Stark from the first moment he met him. He responds to Jim Stark in what is obviously a sexually-threatened way, part of the homoerotic overall nature of almost every male interaction in the film. Now that’s deep subtext, but it’s there. Jim, as played by James Dean, has a quiet kind of power, and people project things onto him. Everyone does. Hopes, dreams, aspirations, resentments … all get poured at Jim Stark like a wave. This happens in every scene. He’s different, he’s quiet, he’s compelling, and also, he’s drop-dead gorgeous. People react to beauty in strange ways. We want to be that beautiful, but we are not, and so it can come out in envious ways. The film doesn’t shy away from those implications, the film doesn’t pretend that James Dean isn’t as good-looking as he is. Every shot, every image, every frame, is chosen to highlight his good looks in what amounts to blatant objectification. Buzz picks up on that. He has to lash out at it. He’s obviously attracted, too. EVERYONE is. So things come to a head between Buzz and Jim during the knife fight at the planetarium. The air between them crackles with hostility. That night, Jim shows up at the cliff wearing his red jacket. The two young men look over the cars for the race. The energy between them has shifted entirely. The rest of the crowd gathered are teenagers, still kids. These two are men. They know it. But they don’t know what “being a man” means. Their fathers have not taught them (a theme I’ll get to in a minute). So they have to make their own worlds, their own rules, because the grownups in their lives have failed them. The two of them are almost exhausted at this point, and talk to one another quietly as they look over the edge of the cliff.
Buzz Gunderson: You know something? I like you.
Jim Stark: Why do we do this?
Buzz Gunderson: You’ve gotta do something. Don’t you?
That very well may be the most important and eloquent exchange in the film. It says it all. And so even with the whiff of nihilism and fatalism that seeps through the action, there is that doomed hope of connection. But it is, indeed, doomed. A lesser film would not have developed Buzz in the way that it did in that chickie run scene.
One of the major impressions I had this recent time seeing it is how overwhelming James Dean is on the big screen. It may be a cliche but it still can’t be overstated.
I have seen all of his films in the theatre and it’s something I recommend, if you can swing it. His spontaneity and his power is electric in a way that few actors have, and it may have been a tenuous talent, it may have emanated from some sort of “sick”-ness (as Elia Kazan suggested). Marlon Brando thought he was good but that he lacked discipline as an actor. He was young. He was 24 when he died. He had that “thing” that cannot be mimicked or faked, although that didn’t stop other young actors from trying. That “thing” is star quality. You want to see what it looks like? Watch Dean in Rebel. There it is. The “what if” that hovers around Dean can take away from the sheer fascination of what he was able to accomplish while he was alive. You have to almost get the Myth out of the way, the best you can, in order to actually perceive him at all. Seeing him in a dark theatre on a big movie screen is a great way to do it, because his authenticity is undeniable. I have seen the movie so many times I know it by heart. I held up a tape recorder to the television back in the day, so that I could listen to it and “re-live” the movie in my head, pre-VCR days. So I know every grunt, pause, aside in the film. And still, still, I found moments that surprised me, clutched at me, struck me. The famous moments like rolling the milk bottle around on his face (a spontaneous choice by Dean), and punching the desk (he actually broke his hand during the filming of said scene), and laughing when the cop frisks him. The famous opening scene where he drunkenly falls into the frame.
(The opening moment where Dean drunkenly plays with a toy monkey, the camera seemingly placed below the pavement, is referenced overtly in Jeff Bridges’ drunk scene in “The Fisher King”, as well as the final shot in an episode of Supernatural “Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magical Menagerie”.)
These are the well-known ones, but it’s there in subtler moments, too. The way Jim seems to understand the nature of Plato’s love for him, and how instead of recoiling at that knowledge, it makes him kind. The look of pain that crosses his face when he sees his father (Jim Backus, wonderful) on the floor, in an apron, worriedly picking up the spilled food. And also the beautiful scene with the sympathetic police officer that opens the film, the man-to-man talk over the water cooler, when Dean really seems to be taking in what the police officer has to say. James Dean is riveting. His beauty just adds to his almost overwhelming effect as an actor. He’s a movie star.
One of the things Dean does so well (and so naturally) is to have both a brooding interior energy as well as an extroverted sense of action and objective. His acting wouldn’t be the same if he didn’t have that blend, if he privileged one side over the other. The interior energy is the sense that he is always thinking, contemplating, musing, on another plane that has nothing to do with the script. It’s subtext. Dean plays it, never ever forgets to play it. And the sense of action and objective are what makes him thrilling and important as an actor, the way he kisses Judy gently on her temple, the gentle way he covers Plato up when he is sleeping, the way he manhandles his father (never forgetting that what he is feeling there is grief, as well as rage).
These are actions coming from character and objective, the nuts-and-bolts of good acting as seen through behavior.
Some of the closeups of Dean are so beautiful they ache. You’re staring at something perfect. And when he puts on the red jacket for the chickie run, you still feel the thrill of danger, how startling he looks, highlighted by that red. It’s a warning signal, a red flag, a sign of his newfound stance against conformity, against the tweed-jacket-loafers “costume” he had been wearing in earlier scenes. No more of that. Set the individual free, society be damned. He will NOT grow up to be a henpecked dutiful husband, domesticated and shamed for his male-ness.
Natalie Wood, as Judy, lives in rampant sexual confusion, which was seen as so explosive at the time that the studio execs were worried about some of the implications in regards to what the hell was actually going on with her father. This is key. Fathers are key to Rebel. Mothers are irrelevant. They are either scoldy-pants nonentities, or irresponsibly invisible. Fathers are the ones who have shirked their responsibility to make sure their children grow up whole and enter adulthood un-broken. Sex is the key to all of this. It’s the radical subversive underpinnings of the entire movie, and it’s there, powerfully, and yet acknowledged only from the side, almost afraid to address the reality of sexual politics in domesticated suburban homes, the threat/fear of incest, and what it means to a parent to see your child blossoming sexually. How this is handled is KEY to the child’s development.
Judy’s father has rejected her once she started adolescence. He no longer gives her affection, he no longer kisses her, and he shames her for the fact that she is becoming a woman. When she tries to kiss him at the dinner table, he explodes. She’s too old for all that now. Old for what? Being loved by her father? By rejecting her, he throws her to the wolves of her peers where she will now strut and pose and “act out”, looking for acceptance in the form of sex. Easy enough with teenage boys. But, of course, that puts her entire future in peril. Judy doesn’t want sex, not really, she wants acceptance and acknowledgement. Having a 16-year-old daughter suddenly sprouting breasts and wearing lipstick is, of course, a disturbing and scary thing for a parent, I imagine. You want to protect your child. You don’t want to be inappropriate. But a daughter becoming a woman is the natural order of things, and she should not be shamed for it. But Judy’s parents fuck it all up. The mother is useless. The father is bound up in his fear of his own reaction to his daughter’s sexuality. This is something he cannot admit to himself.
Strutting about with her “juvie” friends, it is clear that Judy is playing a role. Jim sees right through it, because he saw her crying at the police station. He doesn’t understand why she feels the need to “act” like that. It doesn’t suit her. Judy starts to realize that herself, through the long night in hiding with Jim and Plato, and a softness starts emerging, a softness that had been squashed by her father’s rejection and the careless treatment she probably received from boys for being the easy “Rizzo” at her school. With Jim and Plato she gets to be soft, caring, maternal. She gets to be receptive and open as opposed to over-it and tough. It is interesting to contemplate what will happen to Judy later, after the film ends. Maybe college will free her. But maybe not. I don’t have high hopes. Her father has been too instrumental in shoveling shame upon her head for no reason. It is unforgivable.
But in the Utopia she creates with Jim and Plato that lonely night, surrounded by the broken statuary and cracked concrete of an abandoned mansion, she is allowed to be strong, and she is also allowed to be a woman, with all the softness that that entails. Both energies are necessary to this world, none of it should be shamed out of existence. Conformity in gender roles is harmful because it stifles our natural responses, the way we WANT to be. Once things become prescribed by the culture at large, the only natural thing is to rebel against it. Judy has been forced into this position by her father. Mothering Plato is something she is good at. Loving Jim is something she is good at. Her “womanliness” is something to be treasured, not ashamed about. As well as her desire for affection (and sex). It’s part of life, it’s part of being human.
And then there is Plato, played unforgettably by Sal Mineo. Plato was abandoned by his father, and his mother may have stuck around but she’s no better. Plato is raised by the family maid (Marietta Canty), who is the one who comes to pick him up at the police station, the one who tries to save him, the one who takes on the bullies tormenting him. Her love for him is sincere, but Plato needs a real family. From the first moment he lays eyes on Jim Stark in the police station, he chooses his new father.
But of course what really happens is that he falls in love with Jim, and it is played explicitly that way in the film, by both Mineo and Dean. There isn’t much hiding behind euphemism here, and it’s so refreshing. It’s not subtext, it’s text. Mineo plays it for all it’s worth. He follows Jim around with his eyes, and you can feel his heart palpitating in his chest, with love, lust, desire, idolization. And, beautifully, Jim senses that this is going on and is kind about it. He includes Plato, protects him, doesn’t shame him for having those feelings. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to have been gay in the 1950s and see this film.
We see Plato at his locker in school, watching Jim through the little mirror he has tacked up. Beneath the mirror is a photo of Alan Ladd. All we need is the image to understand everything about this lonely tormented young man. Later, when he runs away from Jim in the mansion, he screams out, “You’re not my father!” and I can’t even type out those words without tears coming to my eyes.
James Dean is filmed throughout like a Christ figure, looming above the other characters in a dizzying way, his head dropped down onto his chest. With all of the symbolism of the colors (there was nobody like Nicholas Ray for drenching his films in symbolic colors), what I was left with this last viewing was the sensitivity of Dean’s acting, its openness to possibilities, its openness to ambiguity and silence. He is truly thoughtful. Onscreen. All of the flash and storm surrounding his death and the subsequent Myth of his short career should not take away from the accomplishment of the performance itself.
The title of the film is accurate. There is no cause. What we have here is an awareness of mortality that has reached a deafening boom. How to live with the knowledge that we will die? How to live with the awareness that the world is going to end? The sensitive teenagers at the center of the film are baffled by the adults in their lives who seem complacent about such questions. What the hell is wrong with them?
At the end of the film, Jim introduces Judy to his parents. He calls her his “friend”.
I love that detail. Not “girlfriend”. It’s bigger than that, it’s kinder and more inclusive. Women don’t have to be slotted into roles: “daughter”, “girlfriend”, “wife”, “school slut”. Men and women can be friends, too.
His parents suddenly look in awe at their son, so confident, so himself. He is beyond them now. He is a man.
The end of the world buzzes through the film like static or white noise, the fuzz on the television in the middle of the night, something everyone in the culture could hear/sense but could not point to on a map. The teenage kids are treated to the spectacle of the world ending in a flash of fire while on the planetarium field trip, and of course all roads lead to the Griffith Observatory yet again in the final scene.
There’s one queasy moment as we approach the finish line where Jim’s parents look at each other and finally laugh, as though burying the hatchet, and to my mind it is the only cop-out in the whole picture. It was a bone thrown to the conformity-ridden culture, saying, “Hey, guys, you’re not so bad after all, we forgive you clumsy lunks.”
But nothing really can assuage the uneasy and disturbing forces unleashed through the film. Plato, holed up in the planetarium against the forces gathering outside, asks Jim if he thinks the end of the world will come at nighttime. Jim thinks about this. He really does. Then he answers, “No. At dawn.”
The movie ends at dawn. I envy you if you find that ending hopeful.