Careers that are blown out too soon create an aura of legend around many young stars that were taken from us in their prime. Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, etc. Fresh faces with all of the talent in the world are snuffed out and the world is left with the question, “What could have been?” This sad fate and the speculation surrounding future “what ifs?” is perhaps no better personified than by James Dean. Dead at the age of 24, with only three credited roles to his name, James Dean’s star still burns bright today despite how little we ever got to see of him. Ever since I first saw the film ten years ago, Rebel Without a Cause has always been a personal favorite of mine. And on this particular viewing (particularly having now seen Giant in recent years), the sense of tragedy over the loss of such an immense talent became almost overwhelming, as this film remains simply one of the best of the 1950s.
I honestly feel like this has to be one of the least understood films I’ve ever watched because critical explanations of its themes and messages are all over the place, and if anyone tries to tell me that it’s a film about the moral decay of American youth, they’re missing the forest for the trees. Rebel Without a Cause is as thematically complex a film from the 1950s that America could have possibly hoped to produce, and the subtle homosexual content was just light years ahead of its time. A film about family, our notions of masculine identity (and where said notions come from), the way that the failings and neglects of our loved ones lead to neurosis and dysfunction, and the painful confusions of youth, Rebel Without a Cause is a timeless classic, and while something indefinable about the film keeps it from perfection (perhaps an intentional emotional distance the film creates), it still set the bar for all future teenage dramas to come.
(side note. This film’s in color but I had trouble finding color stills from the film.)
After moving to a new school because of problems with fighting, Jim Stark (James Dean) doesn’t take long before his emotional baggage gets him in trouble yet again. The film opens with a heavily intoxicated Jim playing with a toy monkey he found in the streets before being dragged to juvenile hall where it becomes readily apparent that his “don’t give a damn” demeanor is a front for dealing with the conflict between his hen-pecked, weak father and his over-bearing, oppressive mother. Though they don’t really interact yet, Jim is joined at juvenile hall by the runaway Judy (Gypsy‘s Natalie Wood), whose father has simply stopped showing her affection as she’s gotten older, as well as by the angry and abandoned Plato (Giant‘s Sal Mineo), whose parents have left hm alone in the care of a nanny. And over the course of one day, these wayward souls are drawn together.
Jim has one fear in life, and it’s to be a “chicken.” This stems from the cowardly nature of his father and the lack of an assertive masculine role model in his life. And although Jim desperately wants to fit in, his sensitive demeanor and foreign nature make him an immediate target for the school’s tougher crowd, which Judy runs with. After a fateful trip to the Los Angeles planetarium, Jim’s honor is called into question by Buzz (Corey Allen), and the pair have a non-fatal knife fight. And that night, when Jim’s dad is unable to muster up a reasonable explanation to Jim, Jim then faces Buzz in a distastrous game of chicken amid a high bluff that changes Jim, Judy, and Plato’s life forever.
This particular interpretation of the film has gotten more popular in recent years, but I don’t know how anyone can watch the film and not realize it. Sal Mineo’s Plato is a homosexual and develops an almost immediate crush on Jim from the moment they first meet. Sal Mineo was gay in real life and James Dean has long been rumored to be bisexual. And, the homoerotic overtones in this movie are even more through the roof than they were in Giant. The longing glances that Plato shoots at Jim are more sexually charges than the ones shared between Jim and Judy. I obviously don’t think that Plato’s repressed homosexuality are at the root of his tragic fall (that lends itself to his parental abandonment), but Rebel Without a Cause has to be applauded for being a film from the 1950s that made a character as gay as possible without ever coming right out and saying he was gay.
Plato’s homosexuality is interesting within the context of the film itself though because Rebel Without a Cause is so interested in what it means to be a man. Not only what it means to be a man, but how men define ourselves in relation to women and our relationships with women. Jim is so angry and confused because society has told him what it means to be a man. To have honor and machismo. But, his role model is his father, who at one point we see in a frilly gown subservient to his domineering mother. And so, Jim is sensitive and gentle, but he nearly rebels against that side of his personality because it isn’t what he feels he needs to be. All of the characters are products of these psychic crises where there personalities are being torn apart from their own personal emotional needs, the failings of their parents, and the molds they feel society wants them to fill.
It’s not just the thematic complexity of the film or its maturity for the era which birthed it that makes Rebel Without a Cause such a classic. It’s the fact that teenage angst and ennui had never been portrayed with such stark realism before. James Dean’s performance in this film is just legendary. I’m yet to see East of Eden (don’t worry. It’s on the list for this blog), but between Giant and this film, it’s painfully clear that James Dean would have been one of the biggest stars to ever live had he not died. Whether it’s his painful cry of “They’re tearing me apart!” as his parents bicker or the innocent way he plays with the monkey he found in the street, James Dean captures the perfect balance between youthful innocence and the driftlessness that defines Jim. And, much like his contemporary Marlon Brando, it never feels like Dean is acting. His performance remains perfectly natural throughout.
And Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood are nearly as good. Sal Mineo’s bravery in bringing such a feminine but in absolutely no way campy male hero to life is astounding, and he layers Plato with so much anger but a dark sensitivity that watching his emotional progression (and then his frightening regression by film’s end) is a masterclass of screen acting. Much like James Dean (and Natalie Wood for that matter), Mineo was a talent that was robbed from us far too soon. And Natalie Wood… The lustful sexual undertones that she plays with during the scenes with her father (where she simply wants chaste male affection but her father refuses because he’s afraid of his own sexual feelings for his daughter) are lightning. And like the other two leads, Natalie Wood bares his soul in a way completely uncommon for the era to speak truths about the painful realities of being a teenager.
There was something about this film that maybe didn’t ultimately click with me, but nearly 24 hours removed from my most recent viewing, I still can’t put my finger on what it was. Just a vague feeling that something at the peripheral of the film was keeping me from totally immersing myself in this world. Still, that microscopic quibble aside, if you have even the most passing interest in cinema and have somehow managed to not see Rebel Without a Cause yet, drop whatever you’re doing and watch it. Without question, it remains one of the defining films of the 1950s and one of the most important films concerning what it means to be a teenager that’s ever been produced. And, if, when the credits roll, you don’t find yourself mourning the loss of James Dean’s monumental talent, you are unable to grasp one of the most exciting talents to ever hit the big screen.
Final Score: A