Friday, June 26, 2020
James Dean's Harrowing Lead Performance Anchors the Haunting Rebel Without a Cause
Rebel begins in a police station, with an arrested Stark waiting for his parents to arrive. At the same time, two other teenagers, Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo), are also being interrogated by officer in separate interviews. Though all three teens are strangers to one another, their conversations (or lack thereof) with their questioning officers make it clear that they all share a common thread of hailing from overwhelming home environments. Stark is caught in between constantly bickering parents, Judy's father ignores her now that she's become a woman while Plato's parents are either entirely absent (like his dad) or away on work (like his mother).
The following day, the trio run into each other during a High School field trip to Griffith Observatory. Further problems surface once a drag race that Stark is participating in results in the death of a fellow teenager. If there is a minor grievance to be had with the story of Rebel Without a Cause, it's that, much like The Best Years of Our Lives and its tackling of alcoholism from a decade prior, the movie feels constrained from fully exploring certain darker subject matters by the Hayes Code restrictions. Being made even just a decade later, Rebel's story could have engaged in more specific examples of teenage woe related to mental health issues, for example, that you couldn't even imply existed in a Hayes Code era movie. Giving even more specifically-detailed challenges for its lead characters to go through could have made Rebel even richer and more in touch with reality.
Still, that's a minor quibble and one that was clearly way out of the hands of Nicholas Ray and Stewart Stern. As its own movie, Rebel Without a Cause still works great and it's impressive what material they were able to sneak by under Hayes Code censors. In particular, Plato all but proclaims his gayness, the character is clearly being coded as queer right down to the blocking & camerawork employed in scenes where it's just Plato and Stark. Intimate close-ups of the two characters standing just inches apart and staring into each other's eyes with soft music pulsating in the background...yes, the subtext is practically text here. That's good subtext to have, though, since the experience of being a queer teenager in 1950s America would make you the kind of outsider Rebel Without a Cause is dedicated to humanizing.
Such humanizing is accompanied by a vibrant color scheme that serves as a great contrast to the internally tortured characters of Rebel Without a Cause. Stark and friends occupy a world full of green grass, bright blue skies, and even furniture that comes in vibrant hues. Their surroundings are bursting with upbeat colors yet their lives are so filled with turmoil. At times, the brightly-colored production design feels even appropriately suffocating. It's all so perfect-looking that it feels like its training Stark, Judy, and Plato for not being perfect teenagers. Simply put, Rebel Without a Cause is a gorgeous-looking movie, a particularly impressive accomplishment considering it wasn't conceived as a color movie!
While the daring subtext and cinematography are quite memorable, what really shines in Rebel Without a Cause is James Dean's lead performance. With his work in Rebel, Dean provided the quintessential pop-culture touchstone for a rowdy 1950s teenager. This means we've had many imitators of Dean in Rebel in the last seven decades but Dean's performance is still so good that it's able to totally eschew the subsequent imitators. When I'm watching Rebel Without a Cause, I'm not thinking of characters who mimicked this performance, I'm merely enthralled in the fictional world Jim Stark.
Dean had the ability to convey potent sadness and internal emotional torture with such grace. Right from the opening scene of Rebel, which depicts Stark lying on the ground watching a wind-up monkey, Dean deftly communicates that this kid isn't just troubled, he has no clue where to go to solve that. He's all alone in this world and that instills in Stark a complicated storm of emotions, all of which Dean is able to handle so well. It's a tremendously haunting performance that only gets more unnervingly tragic as Rebel goes on, with Dean particularly excelling in an unnerving climax that brings the whole story to an appropriately downbeat conclusion. No wonder Rebel Without a Cause has managed to have such a lasting pop culture influence. Not only is the movie itself really good but James Dean's performance is even remarkable than I'd heard.