Revisiting Rebel Without a Cause

Whatever Forever

In the years following World War II, the influx of art, literature, and film in reaction to both the war itself and the world piecing itself back together is staggering. The Cold War, particularly the fear of global nuclear destruction, fueled paranoia which manifested in horror films of the period. Stateside, the pressure to return to normalcy through the baby boom and suburban expansion led to a countercultural movement that would alter the face of the American landscape. Prior to the war, teenagers were considered young adults, training for immersion in American society. Teen angst, even teenage identity, was unheard of, so when a generation of adolescents refused to follow the path of their parents by going gently into adulthood, a new era was born.

No single film better encompasses both the rise of the teenager and its social ramifications than Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause. In the years since its release, it has become a cultural touchstone—both for the tragedies surrounding its trio of young stars and for the film’s impact. Released October 27, 1955, less than one month after James Dean died from a fatal car crash, the film was harrowing both for its eerily prophetic car scenes and the flame of talent that had already been extinguished.

Dean, in his third and final major role, is the embodiment of the 1950s troubled teen as it would become culturally defined. In his red leather jacket, with his cuffed jeans and white t shirt, his cigarette dangling from his smirking mouth, Dean’s Jim Stark is the cool bad boy who will lead generations of girls to sneak out at night, climb on the back of motorcycles, and fall for the wrong guy over and over just because they, like Natalie Wood’s Judy, can’t help it.

The key to Jim’s appeal, and the brilliance of Dean’s performance, lies in the complexity of his emotions. Jim is not bad just to be bad—he’s frustrated, confused, and, yes, angry, but he’s also loyal, loving, and sensitive. This idea of the troubled rebel who needs love has become a trite cinematic cliché, but Dean is the true original and few have come close to duplicating his performance. His Jim Stark never feels like a poser because despite his self-destructiveness and parental issues, he is authentic, lacking pretense; he drinks, gets into knife fights, races toward the literal edge, but kisses Judy gently, and tries to save Plato (an incredible Sal Mineo) all because those are parts of who he is. When he makes the angst-ridden declaration, “You’re tearing me apart!,” it is a roar from every teenager who has ever felt that the world is too much against them.

That Dean would receive his only Academy Award nomination for a strong, yet less kinetic performance in East of Eden, released the same year, indicates a mainstream rejection of this non-urban portrayal of troubled teens (Mineo, however, did receive a much deserved Supporting Actor nomination). Earlier looks at teenagers acting out tended to favor more gang focused, urban settings, often with racial overtones. Rebel shows three middle-class kids who are detached from their parents, society, and even themselves. Theirs is not a distant world but the American neighborhood where everything is supposed to be perfect. Casting Natalie Wood, the sweet little girl with the velvet eyes from Miracle on 34th Street, as Judy was particularly wise—the darling who just wants to believe in Santa is now running around with gang leaders. Jim wearing jeans, in addition to Marlon Brando sporting them in The Wild Bunch, would associate them with hoods and troublemakers for years to come, even causing them to be banned in schools.

Unfortunately, Dean’s death was only the first to befall the dynamic trio. Mineo, whose talent was squandered by typecasting (save a fantastic turn in Exodus), was stabbed to death in 1976, possibly due to his openness about his homosexuality. Five years later, Wood would drown under suspicious circumstances off Catalina Island. At 43, she lived to be the oldest of the three and had the most prolific career. Yet Dean remains the enduring icon, the poster boy for tortured and misunderstood adolescents. From Heathers’ obvious homage in Jason Dean to the lesser troubles of Samantha Baker in Sixteen Candles, coming of age films owe much to the empire founded by Rebel Without A Cause. As do film lovers, young and old alike.


Read more from Whatever Forever.


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