Rebel Without a Cause is a wildly uneven story saved by James Dean’s virtuoso performance.
Make no mistake. If Nicholas Ray’s screenplay has its shortcomings, James Dean’s acting not only lives up to the legend. It actually surpasses it. The surprising thing is not that Dean, at 23, seems too old to play a teenager. It’s that he doesn’t. Dean puts on a master class on how to create the inner life of an angry, suburban teenager. It’s not enough just to look young. A 23-year-old adult’s mind works very differently from a 17-year-old’s. He has a sense of identity, a confidence, a way of looking at people, and a way of speaking that a teenager has yet to develop. Natalie Wood, at 17, doesn’t seem much younger. Sal Mineo, at 16, whose youth is more a product of his actual youth than his craft as an actor, died at the age of 37 after failing to make the transition to adult roles in his 20s and 30s. Dean’s portrayal of Jim Stark, the tentative speech, the inability to look adults in the eye, the wild mood swings, the sullen passivity alternating with often poorly timed outbursts of aggression, show just how well he understands the adolescent mind.
Stewart Stern’s screenplay is revealing in spite of, or perhaps because of its many flaws. The problems begin with the title. Jim Stark isn’t a “rebel.” He’s a conservative. His problem isn’t the established, patriarchal order. It’s the lack of an established, patriarchal order. The Stark family is out of joint. Frank Stark, Jim Backus is a passive, insecure man who’s dominated by his wife, Carol Stark played by Ann Doran. All Jim wants is for his father to act like a man and take his place as the king of his castle.
“Maybe if you just punched her in the face she’d get all happy and stop picking on you.”
Wife beating isn’t politically correct by the standards of 2014, and maybe not even by the standards of 1955, but Jim Stark is an angry teenager, not a feminist college professor. Carol Stark is an underwritten character anyway, more of a minor annoyance than a villain.
What’s driving Jim crazy, “tearing him apart,” is how his father’s apparent indecisiveness masks the cold, emotionally withholding reality underneath. Frank Stark isn’t a wuss. He doesn’t care. Jim Stark can’t quite put his finger on it, but we can. Jim asks, even pleads with his father to tell him no. He’s not allowed to play “chicken” — a game where two kids race stolen cars towards the edge of a cliff and the first one who jumps out is designated the “chicken” — in the hills near the Griffith Observatory. Frank turns him down, his inability even to give his son a straight answer revealing the frigid heart underneath the buddy buddy exterior. Later, after Jim’s opponent is killed when his sleeve gets hooked on a door handle and he can’t jump, Jim confesses what happened to both his father and mother. Their unconcern is chilling. They’re two very typical suburban, WASP parents who are worried about nothing more than their public face. Did anybody see it? Did anybody get your license plate number. Don’t tell anybody.
“Mom, dad,” Jim pleads, taking personal responsibility for his actions in a way his parents can’t, “a boy. A kid was killed tonight.”
Jim Stark is given a heterosexual love interest named “Judy,” a girl with father issues of her own played by Natalie Wood, but she’s really not very interesting. At heart, Rebel Without a Cause is a story about the unrequited gay crush of one teenage boy for another. If the writing in Rebel Without a Cause is confused, and often frustrating, and yet somehow never distracts us from the riveting melodrama — Rebel Without a Cause is very rightly a classic of American cinema — it has a lot to do with how Nicholas Ray manages to address issues of class, race and sexuality identity without alluding to them directly. Indeed, you might say that Rebel Without a Cause is badly written in a way that let’s its underlying message slip past the censors of Eisenhower era morality without being marginalized.
Jim Stark, Plato, Judy, and the crowd of high school students who meet near the Griffiths Observatory to Play “chicken” may all look white and middle-class, but looks can be deceptive. Underneath the clean, well lit place that is 1950s Los Angeles — Can this really only be 15 years after John Ford filmed Grapes of Wrath? — is the larger, multiracial urban reality you never saw on television but which everybody knew existed. The Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s, the gangster and depression era films, are still present in Rebel, but you have to pay attention. Post-war suburbia in 1955 was only 10 years old.
How exactly do Frank and Carol Stark manage to pull up stakes and relocate every time their son gets into trouble? How do they stay inside the upper-middle-class? That’s not the way it worked back in the 1950s. You got a job. You stayed there for 20 years. White, middle-class teenagers probably did, and probably still do get into violent confrontations on class trips to the Griffiths Observatory, but when Jim Stark and his rival fight with switch blades it also makes us think of the inner city, as does Jim’s frenzied reaction every time he’s called “chicken.” An urban, honor bound culture, not necessarily suburbia, requires you to fight every time you’re dissed. Letting himself be called “chicken” —faggot?— risks not only his standing at school, but his physical safety as well.
Plato may be played by a white, Italian American actor named Sal Mineo, but, if you pay attention to the film’s subtext, John “Plato” Crawford is black, and he’s gay. Supposedly his father ran out on him. Plato’s the only character in Rebel Without a Cause without daddy issues, and we never see his biological mother, but Plato has a mother, the family maid played by Marietta Canty. The maid, who’s black, is in fact the only parent in Rebel Without a Cause, who takes an active interest in her son’s welfare. That Plato dies, but Jim and Judy live, might give you some hint about Nicholas Ray’s intentions. In spite of their horrible behavior and distant parents, the police treat Jim and Judy with kindness, even deference. Detective Ray Fremick, Edward Platt from Get Smart, is a lot more like Judd Hirsch’s Doctor Berger from Ordinary People than he is like Officer Krupke from West Side Story. He’s an understanding therapist, not a cop. “Drop by and talk,” he says to Jim, “anytime you want.”
Plato, on the other hand, gets treated much differently. The cops gun him down. While yes, it’s true. He does have a gun he stole from his parents’ house. He does shoot a member of the gang that’s hunting Jim Stark — they think he “snitched” about the game of chicken — and while the cops do mention at the beginning of the film that he shot puppies for kicks, nothing about him seems very dangerous. Quite the contrary. Plato is a martyr to his unrequited love for Jim. Jim, in turn, while straight, treats Plato with a kindness nobody else at school does. Even at the beginning of the movie, in the police station, when Jim is too drunk to know much of what’s going on, he still offers a shivering Plato his coat. Plato’s mother, the maid, cares about her son, but she can’t save him. Neither can Jim.
James Dean’s image was airbrushed after he died. He became a heterosexual sex symbol, a cinematic version of Elvis, an icon of “cool.” His emotionally rich creation of Jim Stark as unhappy misfit devolved into caricature. “You’re tearing me apart” became a punchline. Even the term “rebel,” which in Rebel Without a Cause has an ambiguous, psychologically nuanced meaning, now means nothing much more than “domineering bad boy all the good girls want to fuck.” It is, nevertheless, worth going back and remembering what a genius James Dean was, and how much American cinema lost when he died at 23. He would have still been in his 40s at the beginning of the Reagan Administration. He would have made his presence felt all through the 1960s and 1970s. Instead of Dean’s imitators we would have had Dean himself. Instead of the silly, pop culture phenomenon we would have had dozens of characters with the same kind of richly developed inner life Jim Stark has. But it was not to be.