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James Dean has become such an iconic figure that it is hard to believe that at the time of his death in 1955 he had only been seen in one major motion picture – East of Eden. It is impossible to name another actor who has achieved such stature on the basis of so little work. It is tempting to view him, then, as a symbol, a tragic figure whose subsequent canonization has been more due to his violent early death than to any talent he may have possessed. This is a widely-held view, although most of those who hold it have never seen a Dean film, and are instead basing their assessment of him on a thousand posters, Zippo lighters and Gap commercials.
Watching Rebel Without A Cause, it doesn’t take long to see what a narrow little box Dean has been posthumously placed in by pop culture. Even the opening shot – in which a drunken Dean wanders over to a little wind-up toy monkey, lies down on the curb and plays with it – flies in the face of everything we have been told about him. What is this emblem of cool, this apotheosis of masculinity, doing playing with a toy in the gutter? As the film unwinds, it becomes clear that Dean the actor and Dean the person are actually far more interesting than Dean the Symbol.
Here he plays Jim Stark, a lonely, troubled teenager (“ the Bad Boy from a Good Family!” the poster hysterically screamed, wrong on both counts) whose parents are so distant and uncommunicative that he is driven to a variety of self-destructive behaviors. As the film opens, we see him picked up, drunk, by the cops and dragged down to the police station where, in an extended crosscut sequence, director Nicolas Ray introduces most of the characters and themes that will drive the action of the film.
It should be said that the film’s effectiveness is as much due to Ray as it is to Dean. This opening sequence alone is a minor masterpiece of composition, sound and editing. There are three teenagers in the police station, and each is there for different reasons. Judy (Natalie Wood) has been found wandering the streets, Plato (Sal Mineo) has used a gun to kill a litter of puppies, and Dean is staggering around drunk. Aside from one moment, where Dean offers Mineo his jacket, the three do not talk to each other, yet Ray is constantly placing them in the same shot (usually separated by a pane of glass), and through the little glances they give each other, a strong feeling of solidarity, almost of unspoken conspiracy, is developed. The chasm that separates the adults from the teenagers is accentuated by the fact that Ray rarely puts them in the same shot. These kids have more in common with each other, even when they are complete strangers, than they do with the parents who raised them.
This is not to say that they want nothing to do with their parents. They all want things from their parents, who in some way deny them those things. Plato is apparently parentless, Judy’s father has no idea how to relate to her now that she is becoming a woman, and Jim is concerned that his henpecked father is a weak role model for him. To the contemporary viewer, the scenes in which Jim chastises his father for his submissiveness and urges him to stand up to his mother are a little troubling. He even confesses to Ray, the juvenile officer who is the film’s only sympathetic adult character, that he wishes his father would just once give her a punch in the face. The father is portrayed as almost cartoonishly ineffectual, at one point he even wears a flowery apron over his suit that makes it look like he is in drag.
The film’s overall attitudes towards masculinity and femininity, however, are more complicated. Jim is essentially kind and gentle, but feels tremendous pressure from his society to be a big, tough man. The school is dominated by a gang of leather-jacketed goons (who, like Dean, all look like they are in their mid-to-late twenties) whose initiation rituals are brutal. Jim is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by this lifestyle (his red jacket marks him as an outsider in the sea of black leather). He feels more comfortable talking to Plato, whose name is strikingly ironic, given the obvious nature of his true feelings for Jim (homosexuality still had to be hinted at in 1955, and here the hints are everywhere). Judy blossoms in his presence rather than wilting as she does elsewhere. Jim’s vulnerability and sensitivity (“Your lips are so soft”, says Judy after he kisses her) and at times almost nerdish awkwardness show that this is not a film that equates femininity with weakness. At the root of Jim’s wildness and confusion lies the fact that he is living in a society in which the two are linked very strongly. He looks at his father and sees himself through the lens of society (“I never want to be like him!”)
In an extended sequence late in the film, Jim, Judy and Plato break into an abandoned house and experiment with notions of family. They traipse through the house, cracking weird jokes (“Hey, they forgot to wind their sundial”), affecting the manner and speech of their parents with mock-serious faces (“Hmm, whaddya think, dear?”) almost like parrots, randomly spewing out snatches of their owners’ conversations. The abandon with which the three revel in each other’s company is touching, and Ray explicitly portrays them as a surrogate family. Even this family turns sour, however, when Jim and Judy sneak off to be alone, leaving Plato outside. Plato’s final and tragic breakdown is caused by this perceived ‘parental’ betrayal. The film seems to be telling us that family relationships, by their very nature, are doomed to failure.
Just like its hero, the film is operatic and grandiose in places, shambling and inarticulate in others, but always intensely watchable. Rebel Without a Cause is one of the best films ever made about adolescence, and probably Dean’s best film. He shows a range and a spontaneity here that is almost totally lacking in today’s young actors (Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt being two possible exceptions). His performance is as noteworthy for its numerous moments of disarming humor as it is for its moodiness and brooding intensity. See it, and throw out that sultry black-and-white poster of Dean posing with a cigarette. The reality is more interesting.
– Ben Stephens