– James Dean (Jim Stark) “Rebel Without Cause” (1955)
By Bryan James
Rebel Without a Cause introduced cinema audiences to the concept of ‘teenagers’, sometimes behaving as ‘juvenile delinquents’ and their search for identity in the post-war period of the 1950s – a time when parents were also adjusting to a new world that offered hope and prosperity but lacked the old values and certainties that had previously guided society.
James Dean plays the rebellious young man whose parents move to a new town to escape his troubled history. Dean tries to reconcile his privileged upbringing with the sense of pointlessness he feels about life, made worse by parents who can’t relate to his problems.
Rebel Without a Cause was a ground-breaking attempt to examine the then rapidly-emerging youth culture in America and elsewhere, highlighting weak and liberal parenting and the conflict between the two generations. The film has achieved cult status for the acting of James Dean, fresh from his Oscar nomination for East of Eden, his first of only three films before he died following the completion of his third and final film, Giant. Playing Jim Stark, the tormented and angry ‘rebel without a cause’ is Dean’s most celebrated role and the one that defines his image forever.
The 1955 film stars James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood, with Jim Backus and Ann Doran as Dean’s parents and strong support from Nick Adams, Dennis Hopper, Corey Allen and William Hopper. Directed by Nicholas Ray it was released by Warner Bros on October 27, 1955.
Rebel Without a Cause was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry In 1990 for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant”.
“Rebel Without A Cause” focused on a perpetually on-the-move family, the Starks, whose antidote to their son Jim’s misbehavior is to move to another town. This pattern, of a family blaming teenagers for its own problems, was a theme repeated in the character of Judy (Natalie Wood), whose blossoming sexuality drives a wedge between her and her formerly doting father. Judy in turns hangs with a pack of local hoodlums who challenge new-boy-in-the-hood Jim (James Dean) to a ‘chicken run’ where one boy dies. Fleeing from the police, their families and their own demons, Judy, Jim, and the friendless loner Plato (Sal Mineo) form a substitute family and take refuge in an abandoned mansion until the film’s dark, unforgettable conclusion.” – TCM
The three main stars of Rebel Without A Cause all suffered premature deaths under tragic circumstances:
James Dean, aged 24, died when his racing car crashed and he sustained numerous injuries, including a broken neck, near Cholame, California, September 30, 1955
Sal Mineo, aged 37, was stabbed to death in the alley behind his apartment building near the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, California, February 12,1 976.
Natalie Wood, aged 43, who was making of the film Brainstorm at the time, drowned while on a weekend boat trip to Santa Catalina Island with husband Robert Wagner and Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken, November 28, 1981.
Surprisingly, Dean wasn’t nominated for this film, although Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood were for best supporting actors. He was, however, nominated for Best Actor for his role in East of Eden and was also nominated as Best Actor the following year for his performance as Jett Rink in his final film, Giant (1956), released a year after his death.
“Warner Brothers had bought the rights to Lindner’s book, intending to use the title for a film. Attempts to create a film version in the late 1940s eventually ended without a film or even a full script being produced. When Marlon Brando did a five-minute screen test for the studio in 1947, he was given fragments of one of the 1940s partial scripts. However, Brando was not auditioning for Rebel Without a Cause and there was no offer of any part made by the studio. The film, as it later appeared, was the result of a totally new script written in the 1950s that had nothing to do with the Brando test. The screen test is included on a 2006 special edition DVD of the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire, (and also on YouTube, below) – Wikipedia
I think the one thing this picture shows that’s new is the psychological disproportion of the kids’ demands on the parents. Parents are often at fault, but the kids have some work to do, too.” – James Dean
- Dean told more than one friend that he did not expect to live past 30. When discussing the risk involved in racing cars, he said: “What better way to die? It’s fast and clean and you go out in a blaze of glory.
- In the 4th grade, Dean once burst into tears before the whole class and blurted out “I miss my mother!” His mother, Mildred Wilson, had died of cancer when Dean was nine years old. Students who had teased Dean prior to the incident, stopped soon after.
- Photographer Dennis Stock, who took the iconic images of Dean walking through Times Square and around New York City, once said of Dean: “He lived like a stray animal… come to think of it, he was a stray animal.”
- For most of his adult life, Dean was an insomniac
- The first time Natalie Wood met Dean, she was immediately intrigued when he arrived at the first day of rehearsals through an open window rather than the front door.
- After East of Eden, Dean wanted to play a psychopathic patient in Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb, but Warner Bros. prevented him from taking the role.
- A friend of Dean’s, David Diamond, once said Dean was “the loneliest person I ever knew”.
Natalie Wood: child-star survivor
Natalie Wood began acting in movies at the age of four and, at aged eight, was given a starring role with Maureen O’Hara in the classic Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street.
Journalist Sam Kashner wrote in Vanity Fair in March 2005, “Natalie Wood desperately wanted the part, but at 16 she had played only juveniles. She knew the role of Judy would help her to break into adult roles, and also to wrest control of her career from her domineering mother, Maria Gurdin.
Ray was immediately drawn to Wood, writer and friend Gavin Lambert recalls. “She was very young, and that was always attractive to Nick,” he says. In fact, at 16, she was at least five years younger than all the candidates except Margaret O’Brien, who was 18. But it was not only her youth that appealed to him, Lambert thought. “How quickly did Natalie realize that he found her extremely desirable, and how soon did Nick make his move? … The interview took place in the first week of February, and by the time she made her first screen test, 10 days later they were lovers,” recalls Lambert.
Wood got the part, not just due to her affair with Ray but because he recognized in her a rebellious spirit trying desperately to break out. “There is only one girl who has shown the capacity to play Judy, and she is Natalie Wood,” Ray wrote in a Warner Bros. memo.
To Wood, Ray seemed “mysterious, laconic and powerful – an aging Heathcliff.”
– Sam Kashner, Dangerous Talents
“The price of liberation for Natalie; her first Academy nomination and eventual stardom, was high. It involved a seven-year contract with Warner Bros, and a frustrating series of mediocre parts in mediocre movies, with the exception of John Ford’s The Searchers, in which she (rightly) felt miscast. A lost childhood had left Natalie painfully insecure, and her personal life soon foundered: a brief first marriage (to Robert Wagner) that ended abruptly in divorce, like the second (to a leading British talent agent, Richard Gregson); years of psychoanalysis to undo her mother’s work, and the lapses into uncontrollable panic or melancholy it had caused; years of affairs, some serious (with Warren Beatty), and some not (with Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen), but most as short-lived as her marriages; one serious suicide attempt, and one not”. – Gavin Lambert, The Guardian
Restrained references to Plato’s sexuality and attraction to Jim
“In his article “Dangerous Talents,” published in Vanity Fair, Sam Kashner writes that director Nicholas Ray, screenwriter Stewart Stern, costar James Dean, and Sal Mineo himself all intended for Mineo’s character Plato to be subtly but definitely understood as gay. Kashner says that although the Production Code was still very much in force and forbade any mention of homosexuality, Ray, Dean, Mineo, and Stern all worked together to insert restrained references to Plato’s homosexuality and attraction to Jim, including the pin-up photo of Alan Ladd on Plato’s locker door, Plato’s adoring looks at Jim, his loaded talk with Jim in the old mansion, and even the name “Plato,” which is a reference to the Classical Greek philosopher. For that mansion scene, Dean suggested to Mineo that Plato should “look at me the way I look at Natalie.” – IMDB
“There has been speculation and rumours over the years regarding a real-life romance between Sal Mineo and James Dean… Sal always denied that any physical relationship had occurred between them… he admitted to being bisexual in a 1972 interview which wasn’t published until after his death.
He did however acknowledge that he was in love with Dean at the time of making ’Rebel’ but that his lack of understanding regarding his sexuality prevented him from acting upon it. He is reported to have said: “If I’d understood back then that a guy could be in love with another one, it would have happened. But I didn’t come to that realisation for a few more years and then it was too late for Jimmy and me.” – Sal Mineo: Live Fast, Die Young
“One of the cinema’s most enduring, masterfully-directed troubled youth pictures, Rebel Without A Cause (1955) launched James Dean’s career even as it signaled its abrupt end. In the film, Dean embodied the 1950s conflict between American youth and their parents. It was a conflict marked by various symptoms of social unrest – drugs, violence, sexual promiscuity, anxiety over the future, and alienation. More than some of its predecessors, (Blackboard Jungle), confined their juvenile delinquents to a specific place (an inner city high school). Rebel Without a Cause presented troubled youths that could have lived right next door to Ozzie and Harriet.” – TCM
An actor must interpret life, and in order to do so, must be willing to accept all the experiences life has to offer. In fact, he must seek out more of life than life puts at his feet.” – James Dean
“Rebel Without a Cause gave birth to a whole movie subgenre- the juvenile delinquent film, which includes such colorful titles as Teenage Doll (1957), T-Bird Gang (1959), High School Confidential (1958), and even I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), in which an angst-ridden Michael Landon seeks help for his uncontrollable anger through hypnotherapy, unwittingly unleashing the beast within.
Director Tony Richardson’s 1962 British drama The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is also known in Europe as Rebel With a Cause.” – TCM
Being an actor is the loneliest thing in the world. You are all alone with your concentration and imagination, and that’s all you have.” – James Dean
“Rebel Without A Cause has become one of the archetypal films of teenage angst, an enduring hit with successive generations and a harbinger of things to come in the tumultuous Sixties. The fact that all of the film’s stars, Nick Adams, Dean, Wood and Mineo died tragically and early has also lent a mystique to this powerful, groundbreaking film that continues to this day.” – TCM
Being a good actor isn’t easy. Being a man is even harder. I want to be both before I’m done.” – James Dean
“Nicholas Ray “wanted a Romeo and Juliet feeling about Jim and Judy, and their families. Romeo and Juliet has always struck me as the best play written about juvenile delinquents.” – TCM