Rebel Without a Cause is one film of which so much has been written I hardly have anything new to contribute. Whether it's the legendary tales that have sprung up around the cult of its star, James Dean, the mysterious curse (proposed by some) which took its three leads' lives prematurely or the film's embrace of the explosive Method style of acting you can find a multitude of essays which pick the film apart from any number of perspectives. Continuing my look at the Nicholas Ray's work, I'd like to look at the director's collaborative relationship with Dean.
Perhaps a lot of the success of Rebel may be due to the untimely death of its lead actor weeks before it opened. True, he wasn't yet a star, but Dean was surely headed in that direction. His iconic performances in his final two films, both released posthumously, secured his legend. But strictly speaking of his role in Rebel, its importance stems from the realism Dean brought to his performance as encouraged by the innovative Ray. An associate of Elia Kazan and his Group Theatre, Ray met Dean while spending considerable time on Kazan's set for East of Eden (1955), Dean's first star turn. Impressed with the young man's ability to lose himself in the moment, he forged a synergistic partnership which supercharged Dean's performance as Jim Stark in Rebel. Ray was so sure he wanted Dean for the role, the name Stark is said to have been a deliberate anagram of the name his character in Eden, Cal Trask. Once production began, Ray also did much to make Dean comfortable on set.
Ray allowed Dean a lot of freedom in developing his performance. Taking full advantage, Dean was free to arrive on the set late, taking his time in preparing for the emotional demands of a given scene. Dean may have seen a father figure in Ray since his relationship with his own father was so frayed. Ray fostered Dean's rapport with him by inviting him to spend their off-time rehearsing at Ray's own bungalow at the Chateau Marmont. (This may have been motivated by Ray's guilt over his own personal deficiencies as a dad, which found their clearest expression in the tenuous relationship he had with son Anthony, who at thirteen had an affair with Ray's ex-wife, actress Gloria Grahame, their romance spurred by their growing mutual disdain for Ray. The two would later marry when Anthony was in his twenties.) The bungalow's layout was even duplicated in the set design for Stark's living room at Dean's suggestion, after he and Ray blocked out the critical scene where Stark attacks his father (Jim Backus)—to the dismay of his nagging mom—and found a mise en scène that spoke to the dysfunctional family dynamics. Ray's bungalow rehearsals surrounded him with other young actors who subscribed to the same ethos as Dean, actors like Sal Mineo, Nick Adams, Dennis Hopper, Frank Mazzola, and most overlooked, Corey Allen. (Natalie Wood, talented though she was, was a product of the studio system and did not really approach acting like those who employed the Method.)
Allen displays a cocky likeability in the role of Stark's chief antagonist, Buzz. My favorite scene in the film demonstrates the closeness Stark and Buzz feel, a male bonding fueled by their mutual ideas of defiance and mistrust for authority.
Buzz: You know something? I like you.
Stark: Why do we do this?
Buzz: You gotta do something. Don't you?
Ray's interaction with Allen, Dean, and the other young actors informed the film, giving Rebel Without a Cause a vibrancy and immediacy, an honesty seldom found in other youth pictures up until that time. Rebel Without a Cause gives us a nihilistic world where adults are relegated to supporting players in the dramatic lives of their children. Kids fall in love, react violently, kill, and die in a concentrated span of time lasting just about one full day. And Ray never presents it from any point of-view other than that of the teens. Among the questions which can never be answered are whether Dean's career might have continued on the same track had he lived. Would Ray have continued to contribute to the young actor's success? And more unknowable, how would Dean have influenced the trajectory of Ray's career? What is certain is the influence Rebel Without a Cause has exerted on contemporary cinema. Without Rebel there might not be any teen genre, which runs the gamut in tone as varied as one finds in films from The Breakfast Club (1985) to The River's Edge (1987); and work like that of Gus Van Sant (Elephant) and Larry Clark (Kids) might be limited if not nonexistent..
This is a revised version of a review first published on March 24, 2010.