Monday Movie: Rebel Without a Cause, by Aaron Pinkston
This article originally ran as part of Aaron’s series on American Films of the 1950s.
Up until this point in the 1950s film series, a specific demographic had been completely unrepresented — strangely enough, the demographic that is the largest target of Hollywood films. Though it has been mostly unexplored, the decade may perhaps the first time teenagers were important in the modern societal structure, as they became market consumers and could be targeted in this era driven by advertising. More films were being made for teenagers and about teenagers, and their image from the era is still in our cultural consciousness, as anyone who has dressed up in a clean white shirt, pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve, slicked-back hair and leather jacket could tell you. The closest we got to seeing 1950s teenagers was a few weeks back, in The Girl Can’t Help It, which wasn’t a movie about teenagers, but the rock’n’roll culture that captured these young people. Enter: maybe the most important American film about teenagers ever made, Rebel Without a Cause.
Directed by Nicholas Ray, but perhaps more known as one of the tragically few starring roles of James Dean, the film involves the lives of three Los Angeles teenagers as they are struggling to find their place in the cookie-cutter world of the 1950s. Though he had little impact in terms of the amount of content, Dean has lived on as one of the eras pillars of cultural importance — right alongside Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley (not seen in this particular series, but referenced within The Girl Can’t Help It). I unintelligently always lumped Dean into a group of popular figures whose lasting influence was helped by his death. This isn’t specifically a criticism, without seeing any of his films, but understanding the importance of his image, I gathered that his importance is specifically tied to being young and rebellious. Undoubtedly, how we view him would have changed had he lived and continued to be a successful actor in Hollywood, but who knows if he would have been this lightning-in-a-bottle sort of talent.
Rebel Without a Cause is the first of Dean’s films I have seen, and I was genuinely surprised by the performance — he has become much more known as an “idea” or icon, rather than an actor, and I think his strengths as an actor have been lost in this status. Throughout the film, Dean is right on the line of being totally hammy and magnetic. If you were just to see specific scenes, he could come off as overacting, but the performance on the whole works. Every line of dialogue and facial expression is strained with emotion, but you can’t help but liking him and wanting him to find his way. His role is actually a peculiar one, given his cultural image. Jim Stark isn’t exactly the ultra-cool playboy, even with the slicked back hair, stern face and hip clothes. He is really a societal outcast — the new kid in town and treated as such by his peers, who pick on him, trying to get under his skin. Strangely, he is absolutely believable in this role and his “don’t care” attitude plays into this nicely.
As for the film, the three teen stars are disinterested, disillusioned and self-destructive — just like teenagers should be. Interestingly, the characters do face serious problems throughout the film, as they deal with and contribute to the deaths of others, but the major emotional problems seem to come merely from angst — at least for Jim and Judy (Natalie Wood), while Plato (Sal Mineo) has a bit more true psychosis going on. Just look at the title to see that these characters are angry and angsty, but really for no reason. By the end of the film, you could certainly make the argument that Jim and Judy could live on as positively functioning adults, that this is just a phase they have to get by and be done with, as Jim’s father says at one point “Just wait ten years and you’ll see.” When this is said, that line of dialogue plays like a bad joke, with the mindset of a teenager ten years into the future is basically unfathomable. Maybe coincidence, maybe some sort of cosmic fate, the three young stars all died young, all in unnatural ways. Still, I think the film leaves us with something of an uplifting note — not a wholly positive one, but it doesn’t completely disregard that these kids will have something of a future. This doesn’t dampen the emotion of the teens, though, as I was with them in every moment, never thinking at the time that they were being overly silly or ignorant. I was a teen too, after all, and completely understood their gloom while knowing fully that they could rise above it with time. In that way, Rebel Without a Cause gives us a spot-on look at teenagers of any era and holds up really well today.
Feeding into the prevalence of mere teen angst, there are major dramatic happenings that don’t seem to affect these characters enough. One major setpiece, where Jim and his high school rival Buzz (great 50s name) play a game of chicken that goes awfully wrong. This scene sticks out with the reaction of Judy, Buzz’s girlfriend. Perhaps it was because she didn’t really like Buzz and was just with him for social stature or some sort of teen rebelliousness, but as his car is up in flames, she responds with a coldness, an emptiness that seems to be a much more mature response to a tragedy — not one of a young, impressionable girl. This is contrasted to the film’s major death at the end, where the kids have a breaking moment and respond with the proper emotion.
My first instinct is to say Rebel Without a Cause is a very strong indictment of the nuclear family that is often glamorized in our collective nostalgia of the time. The three lead teens all have slightly different family dynamics, and that plays out in their levels of rebellion. I’ll start with Judy, who has quite an odd relationship with her family. Though we only spend one scene with her family all together, there is a major emphasis that she may be actually in love with her father — perhaps only because her love is laid on so thickly. They should be the perfect picture of the 1950s happy family, but her love is a bit deranged and she is rejected by her father, which drives her to seek attention from boys her own age. I’ll also briefly mention again the emphasis of the era’s love with psychoanalyzation, with Judy an obvious call to Freud.
Jim’s parents are the natural antagonists of the film, but really for nothing sinister. They aren’t bad people, they just don’t have the capacity of understanding Jim and his problems. The phrase “Parents just don’t understand” probably existed well before the 1950s, but it seems to be an important mantra for the era. Jim’s parents constantly don’t listen, talk over him, argue about him and make declarations for him. Nearly every encounter they have together involves them going on about something and Jim exploding in near-violent emotion, pleading for them to shut up and listen — as parents across time never seem to do. Beyond this, they are just totally lame, which we can all sympathize with. They also are the typical 1950s picture perfect family from the onlooker that is broken apart when you see them inside their house. The film also plays with the familial roles in interesting ways, including making Jim’s father a bit of a weakling, unable to stand up to his son, and even wearing a pink apron at one point.
Plato, who is clearly the most troubled of the group, is actually the only one without a family. This could potentially be read as showing the importance of a family structure, that Jim and Judy’s folks may be total squares, but they can offer a support that prevents one from going completely off. There have famously been subtextual readings of Plato as a gay character, fed by the fact that the actor Sal Mineo was an important gay figure in a time filled with closeted men. I’m not sure if the film is saying anything about his potential orientation deriving from a lack of family, but if you read Plato as a gay character, it would certainly suggest his ultimate fate. Jim and Judy may be outsiders, but they aren’t nearly on the same level in society’s eyes, and the film’s conclusion delivers on Hollywood tropes.
At the film’s end, there is a crucial moment involving this idea on the nuclear family, in the form of a gesture made by Jim’s father. Jim and Judy have been brought together through tragedy, and one of the last bits of dialogue is Judy being introduced to Jim’s parents. Though a horrific and complicated event has just taken place, the father reacts with glee upon seeing his son with a girlfriend. Now that Jim and Judy are together, they can fulfill and restore the 1950s family and everything will live on happily ever after. In his eyes, Jim has gained what he was missing throughout his young life, the thing that caused all of Jim’s problems. You could potentially use this as a reading that a positive view of the family, especially if you buy into the idea that Jim and Judy can now be happy with each other in their lives, but given that the call comes from Jim’s father, a man we don’t respect, I’m not so sure.
Rebel Without a Cause has long been a film that I expected to be a parody of itself, given the reputation it has and the reputation of its star. Though it is certainly an angsty portrait that launched a million imitators, I did quite enjoy it. Ray’s direction, full of odd cinematography and completely raw emotion, works on an artistic level that caught me a bit off guard. And seeing it in this particular context, as a reading of the 1950s, it’s essential.