A groundbreaking drama starring three legendary stars with tragic endings
“Rebel Without a Cause”, a classic film about family and love (and the lack of it), was groundbreaking in many ways. It was one of the first films to showcase conflicts between parents and teenagers coming from non-impoverished homes. It expressed the anger and frustration of teenage rebellion. It touched on a current trend of crimes by juvenile delinquents, and was banned upon its first release in some cities and towns for fear it would incite violence. And it features three legendary actors all of whom died tragic deaths way too young. The film is scattered with 1950s lingo but the emotions and actors ring so true that the film connects deeply to this day and stands the test of time. We’ve all felt at one point or another, some of the feelings these characters feel. Every time I rewatch this film I end up loving it even more.
"Rebel Without a Cause" was shot in Cinemascope, an ultra-widescreen format used mostly in the 1950s and 1960s. Cinemascope was used in part to combat film’s new rival - television. The large screen format helped make the film’s performances, expressionistic color and camera angles larger than life.
Expertly directed by Nicholas Ray, a talented American director who directed films from the late 1940s up to his death in 1979. “Rebel Without a Cause” is his most iconic film, and he also directed several other notable films including "In a Lonely Place", "Johnny Guitar", and “Hair", one or two of which will appear in upcoming blog entries. He was very briefly married to actress Gloria Grahame, and was also at one point a protege of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
James Dean, who stars as “Jim Stark”, became a legend, an icon, and a cultural phenomenon. In this film he was able to unmask the angst and disillusionment of a misunderstood teenager ready to explode. His persona on and off screen spoke to the young people of the 1950s and he instantly became the symbol of youthful rebellion. It is even said that his image influenced the likes of Elvis Presley and the entire rock and roll movement. Like Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando he was a “Method” actor studying at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg (I briefly mention The Studio when talking about Clift and Shelley Winters HERE). James Dean continued the momentum started by Clift (and propelled by Brando) of a new raw realism and emotional intensity in acting. Dean was known for doing a lot of improvising while filming and actors he worked with (and cameramen) had to keep up. He was also noted as being elusive, moody and difficult to work with. Being a troubled kid from a troubled family he had to warm up to you to let you in. Dean began by appearing in television and a couple of uncredited bit parts in films beginning in 1951. “Rebel Without a Cause” is the second of only three films he made in his career, the other two being “East of Eden” and “Giant”, which will both be recommended in upcoming posts. Dean was bisexual or gay depending on whose interviews you believe. He loved fast reckless driving in cars and on motorcycles, and started to enter the world of auto racing. Sadly, in September of 1955, while driving from Los Angeles to a Salinas Road Race event, James Dean had a fatal car crash. He was only 24 and already a star from his first film, “East of Eden”, released about five months before his death (the only of his films released in his lifetime). “Rebel Without a Cause” was released about a month after his death and it immortalized his image as the rebel. He was nominated twice for a “Best Actor” Academy Award, never winning. Funny enough his nominations were not for his most iconic role in “Rebel Without a Cause”, but for his other two films. He was voted number 18 of the men on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years...100 Stars” list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”, a testament to his impact, being that he only made three films.
Natalie Wood, who stars as “Judy”, the female lead, was Hollywood royalty for most of her life. A beautiful and accomplished actress filled with charisma and vulnerability. She started as a child film actor when she was just four years old. By the time she was nine she was one of the top child stars in Hollywood mostly due to her co-starring role in the 1947 holiday classic film, “Miracle on 34th Street”. “Rebel Without a Cause” was possibly her most important film career wise, as it was her first “adult” role. She fought hard to get the part of “Judy” and it paid off. Her parents pushed her into acting as a child and she said that “Rebel Without a Cause” is the role where she decided on her own that acting was what she wanted to do, and not act because of her parents. She was just 15 at the time and gives an outstanding performance, and received a nomination for a “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award. It would be one of three Oscar nominations she would receive all by the time she was 25 years old (the other two nominations would be for “Best Actress” for "Love with the Proper Stranger" and "Splendor in the Grass"). She’s one of the few actresses to sustain a career moving from child to teen to adult and be a success every step of the way. Natalie was of the biggest stars of the 1960s, and appears in several more classic films including “West Side Story”, “Splendor in the Grass”, and “The Searchers”, which will all be among upcoming entries in this blog. She married three times, two of which were to actor Robert Wagner, and the couple was a favorite of the movie magazine tabloids. Natalie was famously afraid of being in dark water. Family was important to her and she spent as much time possible with her children which led her to focus more on television work than films in the 1970s. She acted right up until her untimely death in 1981, when her body was found under mysterious circumstances off the coast of Catalina Island (in dark water). To this day there are still questions about the cause of her death.
The third lead in the film is Sal Mineo, who plays “John ‘Plato’ Crawford”. This film was his breakthrough role and he became a teen idol in the 1950s. He gives a brilliantly touching performance in this film and was nominated with a “Best Supporting Actor” Academy Award, one of two career Oscar nominations he would receive (the other for the 1960 film “Exodus”). He came from a rough childhood, fighting and joining gangs in New York as a young kid. He started studying acting, appeared in theater, then some TV, and started working in films from the mid-fifties (in his teens) until the 1970s. Throughout his career he mostly worked in theater and television rather than film. He also appears in James Dean’s final film, “Giant”, which will be recommended on here in the future. “Rebel Without a Cause” is Sal's best remembered role in his all too brief career. He was a gay actor and open about it - almost unheard of in his lifetime. Sadly, Sal Mineo was murdered by a stranger in 1976 at the age of 37.
A daring casting choice in "Rebel Without a Cause" was that of Jim Backus as “Frank Stark”, "Jim Stark's" father. At the time, Backus was known as a comedian, mostly playing wealthy type characters on radio, TV and in some films, as well as appearing as Joan Davis’ husband on the TV Series, “I Married Joan”. He was also famously the voice of the cartoon character “Mr. Magoo”. Jim Backus is probably best known for playing “Thurston Howell the III” on the TV show, “Gilligan's Island”. He died 1989, at the age of 76.
Also recognizable from classic TV in “Rebel Without a Cause” is Edward Platt who plays “Inspector Ray Fremick”. Platt started as a singer, and after serving in WWII worked on Broadway soon making it into films and TV. “Rebel Without a Cause” is his fourth film. He worked mostly in TV - and most famously as “The Chief of Control" on the cult 1960s TV show “Get Smart”. He appeared in a couple of classic films which will appear on here in the future. Edward Platt worked from the mid 1950s up until his death in 1974 at the age of 58.
Last but not least in the cast is Dennis Hopper, who plays “Goon”. “Rebel Without a Cause” was his first film role. Evidently his role in this film was originally larger but was cut by director Nicholas Ray. It seems Hopper was dating Natalie Wood at the time and Nicholas Ray (who was much older) was having an affair with her as well. This caused tension between the director and actor and so Hopper's part was trimmed. Hopper mostly appeared on TV in the 1950s, and in films in the late 1960s when he became a major Hollywood talent. An actor, director, writer and also a photographer, he was an artist and kind of a rebel in his own way. He was nominated for two Academy Awards in his career, one for co-writing the screenplay for the breakthrough 1969 film, “Easy Rider” (in which he also starred and directed), and for a “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” Academy Award for the 1986 film, “Hoosiers”. He appeared in many classic and memorable films including "Easy Rider","Apocalypse Now", "True Grit", "Blue Velvet", and "Speed". Dennis Hopper died in 2010 after just turning 74.
You are in for a visual and emotional treat with “Rebel Without a Cause”. Make sure to watch it (or rewatch it), and enjoy!
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OTHER PLACES YOU CAN BUY THE FILM: Ebay Deep Discount
TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
James Dean’s iconic red jacket from "Rebel Without a Cause" became a bit of a fashion trend. And the color red is used throughout the film symbolizing different stages as all of the three main characters wear red at some point. It starts with Judy in a red coat at the beginning of the film when she is filled with anger and upset. Next we see Jim in his iconic red jacket symbolizing rebellion. And at the end we see Plato in Jim’s red jacket symbolizing understanding, caring, and ultimately peace.
The observatory where the knife fight and the last scene of the film take place were filmed at Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles. There is now a small bust of James Dean outside the observatory commemorating James Dean and the use of the observatory as a location in “Rebel Without a Cause”.