- Director: Nicholas Ray
- Writers: Screenplay by Stewart Stern, Story by Nicholas Ray and Irving Shulman
- Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen, William Hopper, Edward Platt, Marietta Canty, and Dennis Hopper
- Accolades: 1998 AFI Top 100 list (#59), 3 Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor – Sal Mineo, Best Supporting Actress – Natalie Wood, Best Story)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, rent or buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
James Dean remains an instantly recognizable movie icon, despite suffering an untimely death in a car crash at age 24. Dean had starred in only one movie in a credited role before his passing, East of Eden. Less than month after the crash, Rebel Without a Cause hit movie screens, and became an instant smash. The same as Marilyn Monroe is always shown today holding her dress down while standing over a subway grate, Rebel Without a Cause defined the image of James Dean for all time. The ultimate cool dude, wearing a red jacket, cigarette dangling from one lip as he drives around in a 1947 Mercury. If you buy a stand-up cutout of James Dean for your Classic Hollywood party or whatever, it is going to be James Dean from his movie. The next year, Giant would come out, and that was it. James Dean was in three movies, none of which I’d seen before this week, but I could still have told you a bunch of other things about him. There are two lists on his Wikipedia page, one of Dean’s movies and one of movies in which other actors have played Dean. The latter is at least twice as long as the former.
Coming in to Rebel Without a Cause, I was expecting to be underwhelmed by Dean, and had no idea what to expect from the movie itself. But he actually is very charismatic and, yes, the “epitome of cool.” Maybe that should not be surprising, because Rebel came out six months before Elvis Presley released his first album, and was made because Hollywood was trying to figure out what the newfangled phenomenon of “teenager” was all about. Dean didn’t embody some previously established archetype. He defined the archetype. After this, Dean is what was cool. The fact that he never grew old only calcified this definition. He became the ultimate teenager.
None of this would matter, or likely have reached a wide audience, if Rebel hadn’t been a really good movie. Which… I think it is? It captured my attention all the way through, which is more than I can say for a lot of other “classic” movies. These days people are more likely to have seen later takes on being a 1950s teenager, like American Graffiti or Grease. Viewers might not realize just how far removed these movies are from actual experience until you see an actual movie made by 1950s people about teenagers. At its core, Rebel Without a Cause is about three high schoolers who absolutely hate their parents. The parents, for their part, range from complete bafflement. Jim Stark (Dean) has just moved to town, with a completely ineffectual father (Jim Backus, perhaps best known as Thurston Howell on Gilligan’s Island), who Jim thinks is a complete pushover to his mother (Ann Doran). I’m not sure she says a kind word to anyone in the entire movie. Judy (Natalie Wood) runs with a gang, seemingly in an attempt to act out against her father (William Hopper). This relationship is never fully explicated, though he gets mad at her once for kissing him on the cheek because he says she’s “grown out of that kind of thing.” The third teen, Plato (Sal Mineo), has a completely absent father and a mother who apparently does not care about him and spends most of her time out of town (we never seen either). The adult in his life is a kind Black maid (Marietta Canty), and we first meet him after he’s been brought in to a police station for shooting puppies. This does not ring the loud alarm bells in 1955 that it would today, apparently, and is treated as a minor youthful indiscretion, similar to Jim’s drunkenness that has landed him in the same police station at the same time.
Early in the movie, all the kids watch a planetarium show at the Griffith Park Observatory, which plays an outsized role throughout. They are told that their problems are meaningless and that one day the world will end no matter what they do. This is 1955, with the Cold War still on the upswing and the threat of nuclear annihilation seeming more like an inevitability. Prior to this movie, films about “juvenile delinquents” had mostly focused on inner city youths from troubled, economically disadvantaged homes. Rebel brought the teenage rebellion right into the suburbs, to kids whose parents had lines like, “Haven’t I always bought you everything you wanted?” Before maybe the movie’s key scene, a car race (sort of) between Jim and gang leader Buzz (Corey Allen), Jim asks, “Why do we do this?” Buzz shrugs and says, “We gotta do something, right?”
That is all well and good, but, aside from Dean’s insane amounts of charisma, what kept me watching this movie is not its universality but the way it has weirdness bubbling underneath the surface. What is going on with Judy and her father? It seems like more than the movie is willing to actually show us. Plato, meanwhile, has been called by the actor who played him, Mineo, “the first gay teenager on screen.” Obviously the movie wasn’t going to say that on screen, but Plato has a pin-up in his locker, not of a Hollywood starlet, but of Alan Ladd, and he repeatedly makes what we in 2020 would see as straight up passes at Jim. Mineo later stated that he was acting under a suggestion from Dean to “look at me the way that I look at Natalie Wood.” It is perhaps unfortunate, then, that the movie ends with Plato’s death. The ending is one bit that plays entirely different today than it would at the time, with a teenager barricading himself inside a building only to be fatally shot by the police when he comes out.
The weirdness, though, is not just in what the moving is showing us and not telling. After Judy has just watched her boyfriend drive off a cliff, Jim tries to cheer her up with “want to see a monkey?” Jim and Buzz start off one fight with this exchange: “You’ve read too many comic books.” “You’re real abstract, you know that?” When Jim first meets Judy, he asks, “Do you live around here?” She looks away and airily replies, “Who lives?” The whole movie is like this, with the tone probably set by Dean himself. If Brando popularized method acting, Dean took it to its earliest extreme, or maybe he was just a weirdo. Supposedly he often would just lie on the floor in a fetal position between takes, popping up to nail to scene, then lay right back down again.
Or maybe the movie owes its tone to its director, Nicholas Ray. Like all of Ray’s work, the movie has a certain grittiness, despite being shot in gorgeous color Panavision at the studio’s insistence, to better showcase Dean as an up-and-coming star. Ray was a drunk and a drug addict, who had descended into a wild party lifestyle a few years earlier after he reportedly found his then-wife, the actress Gloria Grahame, in bed with his 13-year-old son. That son (who later married Grahame after coming of age) was 17 at the time Rebel came out, uncoincidentally the same age as Dean’s character. Many Hollywood chroniclers have claimed that Ray slept with both of his leads, Wood and Dean, during the shooting of the movie (Many biographers think Dean was at least bisexual, and he did say in one interview that he was “not a homosexual, but I’m not going to go through life with one hand tied behind my back, either”). In any case, he was always something of an outsider in Hollywood, and for a few decades before his death wasn’t able to find any movies to direct. Rebel was his biggest American hit, but he would be lauded for his entire oeuvre by the filmmakers of the French New Wave, who saw him as a direct ancestor. Jean-Luc Godard wrote that “Ray is cinema,” and while his Western Johnny Guitar is mostly forgotten in America, it is considered one of the greatest American movies by some Europeans. Cahiers du Cinema rated it the 22nd greatest movie of all time on a 2008 list that completely left off Rebel Without a Cause.
In fact, none of the three main stars of Rebel Without a Cause would grow old, which only added to the movie’s legend. Natalie Wood infamously drowned in what some people think was a boating accident and some people think was murder, in 1981 at the age of 43. Mineo’s career declined after his teen years, but he continued to act on stage. In 1976, he was stabbed in the heart by a mugger while returning to his New York apartment late at night after a rehearsal for his upcoming play, P.S., Your Cat Is Dead. After appearing on the 1998 AFI Top 100 list of the best American films, Rebel Without a Cause fell off the 2008 version of the list completely, for reasons that are unclear to me. I would say it should have stayed on, given that I definitely enjoyed it much more than several of the movies that stayed on the list. Regardless of these technicalities, it’s well worth watching.