James Dean Week: Day Three

This week, leading up to the 60th anniversary of James Dean’s death, I’ll be posting an article each day on a different facet of Dean’s life and legend. Today’s installment: a review of Jimmy’s second starring role, “Jim Stark” in Nicholas Ray’s angst-ridden tale of teenage drama, Rebel Without a Cause.

Biographical Background

Before East of Eden’s release, before he became a superstar, Jimmy began rehearsals on Nicholas Ray’s juvenile delinquency picture Rebel Without a Cause. Dean and Ray became collaborators of sorts, practicing the early drafts of scenes at Ray’s Chateau Marmont bungalow; Ray invited an incredible amount of input from Dean, allowing him to improvise his lines, develop the relationships he’d have with the other characters, and essentially determine Jim’s arc in the film.

Crucial to the success of the film would be the relationships between Jim Stark and his two friends, Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo). Though the studio and the censors wanted Ray to avoid any intimations of anything going on between Plato and Jim, it was actually James Dean who recommended to Nicholas Ray that Plato look at Jim the way Jim looks at Judy. The screen test between the three of them is particularly fascinating; James and Sal play around, drawing each other in physically, seeming about to kiss several times, while Natalie just sits off to the side watching patiently.

The Plot

Jim Stark is the new kid in town. His family has just moved here because where they used to live, Jim got called a chicken and messed the kid up. During Easter weekend, Jim is picked up by the cops, blind drunk in the street; at the police station, he crosses paths with the pretty but rebellious Judy (who’s been wandering the streets after fighting with her father) and the timid Plato (who’s been taken in by the cops after shooting a litter of puppies). While they’re at the police station, Jim confides in Detective Ray Framek that he’s all out-of-sorts because his father is weak and he doesn’t stand up to his domineering mother.

The next morning brings Jim’s first day at Dawson High. At a field trip to the planetarium, Jim ignores Plato’s warnings and clashes with Buzz and the Kids, a local gang. Instead of continuing their knife fight, Buzz convinces Jim to meet up later for a chickie run, where they’ll race stolen cars toward the edge of a cliff — whoever jumps first is a chicken. Jim can’t stand being called a chicken, so he agrees. From there, the night spirals out of control as the three kids — Jim, Judy, and Plato — realize that they can cast off the problems of their parents and form their own family unit… with dramatic results.

A Generation Defined… in Moments

There is so much I could write about Rebel Without a Cause. As I’ve been delving deeper and deeper into the James Dean mythos over the last few months, I’ve watched this movie upwards of half a dozen times, in addition to the five or six times I’d already seen it, and I’ve read several books that go into detail about the movie’s production and reception. There’s a lot to be said about Rebel’s precise control over its own tone — that is, its unique attitude toward its teenage subjects in treating them and their angst with respect, while still maintaining the slightest bit of knowing distance from their trials and tribulations. When you’re a teenager, petty arguments with your parents do seem like the end of the world, and Rebel understands and remembers that in ways most movies do not. But as you get older, and you realize that — to borrow a more modern turn of phrase — it gets better, you can watch Rebel and see how the parents (except Plato’s, who are nonexistent) actually aren’t all that bad.

I could also go into detail about the breathtakingly complex, virtuosic police station scene that opens the film and introduces the three main characters. The camera movement and framing are absolutely exquisite, making full use of the widescreen CinemaScope format to constantly keep the other main characters in the background so we can see their reactions to whatever is happening in the foreground.

But instead, I’d like to try something different for the remainder of this “review.” Instead… keep in mind that Dean told his friends that he was attempting to develop a new acting style, whereby an actor would live his life completely, experiencing anything and everything, so that they could synthesize all of their memories into a performance that was a perfect series of true moments.

So, in explaining why Rebel Without a Cause is one of my favorite movies, and in breaking down why James Dean’s performance resonated with teenagers around the world and defined the very concept of the angst-ridden teenager, I’m going to point to a few of my favorite moments in the film.

From the beginning of the Armstrong Circle Theatre episode “The Bells of Cockaigne, starring James Dean.

Hedda Hopper said after East of Eden that she was struck because Dean had an extraordinary number of “facets of emotion.” I have a theory that part of James Dean’s appeal is that he’s able to perfectly contort his face into precise imitations of the iconic comedy/tragedy masks, and consequently, he can portray every emotion in between. Rebel contains two moments, at opposite ends of the spectrum of his strained relationship with his father, where we can see Jim make these faces exactly.

First: Jim comes home to find that his father, clad in a frilly yellow apron, has dropped a tray of food. He laughs at the sight of his poor, emasculated dad crawling around on the ground. This is one of the more uncomfortable scenes in the film for me; the reason why Jim is so distraught is that his parents don’t conform to traditional gender roles. I understand that we’re not necessarily supposed to think Jim is in the right here — after all, by the end of the film, Jim becomes exactly the kind of supportive, friendly father-figure for Plato that his father is for him. But still, as adorably infectious as James Dean’s giggle is, it’s hard to reconcile this with the fact that he hates his father for being too girly. Comedy!

Later, after the dramatic night has come to a conclusion and Plato lies sacrified — er, dead — on the steps of the temple — er, planetarium — Jim sprawls next to his friend in anguish. His father comes to comfort him, and at this point Jim has realized that his father isn’t so bad after all, and that there are many ways to “be a man.” Utter despair crosses his face as he gropes for his father’s leg like a baby. Tragedy!

Throughout the film, Jim goes through a number of emotions between these two extremes. He goes on a journey wherein he learns that it’s a good thing for men to have soft, sensitive qualities, too, and he discovers that fighting to defend one’s honor sometimes leads to horrific consequences. But these are the two poles of the film… so here we have it: the Comedy/Tragedy masks of James Dean.

I struggle a bit with Jim’s relationship with his father, even if it ultimately works itself out. But the one relationship in the film that I think is composed of nothing but lovely moments is Jim’s friendship with Plato, who is clearly in love with him and isn’t sure how to express it.

Jim and Plato first interact at the police station — which reminds me, one of my favorite moments in the whole movie is the very beginning of the film, the short scene that plays under the opening credits. The entire thing was improvised by James Dean; he was just supposed to sort of duck into frame, grab the monkey (which was left over from a previous scene that got cut), and keep walking. But instead, he threw himself down on the ground and devised a little scene where Jim cares for the discarded toy, giving it a blanket and lying down next to it — perfectly foreshadowing and summing up the themes of the film and the fact that he will care for Plato by offering his jacket to keep the kid warm, even in death. All of this, made up by James Dean on the spot.

Once Jim and Plato actually come together at the police station, Jim does indeed offer Plato his coat. And it’s adorable.

I love everything about this. I love the way the shot is framed, so you can see him notice Plato before he decides to give him the coat. Remember, Jim is “blind drunk” at this point; I love the little stumble to the side when he gets out of his chair.

Plato refuses the coat; later, as he gets out of his seat again, his eyes fall accidentally across his coat and then he notices Plato once more. Confused, in that drunken way where cause and effect and time can get muddled, he asks, “You… why didn’t you take my coat?”

Of course, I can’t discuss standout moments in the film without including a clip of one of the most iconic lines in the film. This excellent article by Matthew Sewell does an excellent job of breaking down all of the gestures Dean packs into this one expressive moment to convey his “anguished adolescent turmoil”:

Dean contorts his face, strains his voice, twists his hands, swings his arms, grabs his tie, and clutches his coat like a security blanket, all in the service of communicating Jim Stark’s anguished adolescent turmoil. (Nicholas Ray cannily frames this so that Dean’s hands and arms keep leaving the shot, thus emphasizing Jim’s sense of himself as pushing wildly at a confining world.)

I love their interaction in the planetarium, after Plato has become distraught at the display about the end of the world. He hides under the chair, but Jim comforts him.

Later in the film, one of my favorite moments between the Jim and Plato occurs when Jim arrives at the chickie run. I love the way Plato rushes to Jim’s side, and Jim is genuinely happy to see him. Credit goes to Sal Mineo here too for the unabashed, fearlessly adoring way that he looks at James Dean. In 1955, that was no simple thing. Mineo was later open about being gay, and he said that he later realized that he’d been madly in love with James Dean throughout the filming of Rebel, but he didn’t quite know how to express it. It’s impressive, then, that he had no compunctions about translating that confusion to the screen through his performance.

Rebel does kind of pathologize Plato’s homosexuality. It’s framed somewhat as a search for a replacement father figure, which was one psychological understanding of homosexuality at the time… but I also subscribe to Frascella and Weisel’s reading of this in Live Fast, Die Young that Plato’s uncomfortable outburst of “Boy, I wish you’d been my father” is as much an expression of Plato himself not quite understanding what it is he feels for Jim Stark as it is any inherent homophobia in the film.

Because this film is not homophobic, even as it does send its obviously-gay character on a murderous, gun-wielding, histrionic rampage from the rundown mansion to the observatory. Jim Stark — thanks to James Dean’s careful, compassionate performance — treats Plato with a breathtaking amount of tenderness at the end of the film, even after Plato shoots at Jim when he mistakes him for someone else. “He didn’t mean it,” Jim tells Judy when she urges him to forget about Plato and leave him to his fate.

When Plato breaks into the planetarium and hides out in the room where they had their field trip earlier in the film, Jim goes in after him to prevent him from hurting himself or anyone else. As he tries to talk Plato off the ledge, he says tenderly: “Not ready to come out yet? I promise nothing will happen if you do!”

He primarily means “come out of the observatory and into the waiting arms of the police,” of course, but considering their friendship in the rest of the film, I believe there’s a second meaning, too. Like earlier in the film when he gently turns down Plato’s invitation to go home together by saying “Hey, but I’ll see you in the morning, okay?” he’s telling Plato that it’s fine if he’s gay, he doesn’t care, they can still be friends. It’s not the end of the world.

And then, the false, projected star lights dancing over his entire body, transforming him into an ever-shifting, ever-changing constellation, he gives Plato his jacket.

And while Plato puts it on, Jim looks at him like this:

In the earlier planetarium scene, Jim looks up at the sky and says to Plato, “I was just thinking… once you been up there, you know you’ve been somewhere.”

Rebel came out mere weeks after the country was rocked by James Dean’s untimely death. After his death and Rebel cemented him in the pantheon of Hollywood legends, James Dean’s constellation was forever installed in the Hollywood sky. It’s Plato who dies at the end of the film, and Jim lives on… the metaphoric significance of which I think can’t be underestimated — even though the audience watching knows that it was Dean who was already dead, because of his on-screen roles he will live forever. After Rebel, James Dean truly had been somewhere.

Next: Giant Review (coming soon)

← Previous: East of Eden Review

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