Saturday, August 4, 2012

Nicholas Ray | Rebel without a Cause

the coat off his back
by Douglas Messerli

Stewart Stern (adapted from a book by Irving Shulman and a story by Nicholas Ray), Nicholas Ray (director) Rebel without a Cause / 1955

In retrospect it would be easy to dismiss Ray's beloved film, Rebel without a Cause, as a gaudy (like many of Ray's movies, shot in bright primary colors, particularly red) melodrama of teen angst. Many of its themes are little more than hack psychology. Most of the film's actors, with the exception of the 16-year-old Sal Mineo, are hard to believe as high school students (James Dean and Nick Adams were 24 at the time, Dean dying in a speeding car before the film was released; although Natalie Wood was just 17, she looks far older than a college freshman—she'd done a lot of films by that time; Dennis Hopper was 19; Corey Allen was 21). And much of the overwrought (and quite unbelievable) dialogue—including Dean's famous line "You're tearing me apart!" —seems to have been stolen from some daytime soap opera.

 Yet the more I see this film, the more I realize Ray's remarkable achievement. This is not a film of realist pretention, but rather a kind of unsung opera about the isolation of teenagers (as the character Judy's mother explains: she's at the time in her life when she doesn't "fit in."), the difficulties of being sexually alive without knowing quite how to deal with the emotions that come with it.

     Unlike the missing parents of West Side Story—a work which shares many tropes with Rebel without a Cause—most of the parents are very much at home in their Los Angeles homesteads, trying their hardest to cope with their children's problems. If they all seem a bit "dopey" and self-deluded in this film, they are, nonetheless, well-meaning. Judy's father (William Hooper), given her suddenly radiant sexuality, has backed away from showing his daughter the affection he once did; if only he could explain to her and himself why that sexuality is bothersome to him, he might help her to understand and still feel a part of the family (at one point, when Jim Stark asks her "Is that where you live?" she answers "Who lives?).

    Jim Stark's father (Jim Backus) might today be seen as a supportive husband instead of the 1950s presentation of him as a hen-pecked man who doesn't have "the guts to knock Mom cold." And even Jim might today be less fearful of failing to play the macho games which characterize anyone refraining from them as a "chicken." Given the bullying described today in schools, perhaps not.

    You don't even need have taken Psych 101 to perceive that Plato's (Sal Mineo's) problem has to do with a father who has left and mother who is never home—on top of his being gay. These are basically good kids who play out, in Ray's pageant-like play, all parents' worst fears, their children's lives leading to drunkenness, overt sexual behavior, robbery, and death.

     The problem here is not good parenting, accordingly, but the fact that despite their nice homes, these young people feel homeless, unable to express anything to the adults around, or, particularly in Jim's case, the fear that any truth he does express will be met with hypocrisy, particularly in his mother's case, who determines to move to a different city every time he gets into trouble.

     The dramatic encounters in the artificial world which young teenagers must live—a world defined by the walls of a classroom filled with people of their same age with similar problems—are dramatically portrayed in Ray's movie: a knife fight (right out of Romeo and Juliet), a "chickie-run" in which young men in automobiles literally put their lives at the edge, and, finally, a shoot-out with dangerous fellow students and police. That Ray chooses the iconic Griffith Planetarium (a place of stars and—as the students have learned from the Planetarium lecturer—the end of the universe) as a backdrop to the knife fight, a Malibu-like cliff for the car race, and an empty Bel-Air-like mansion for the final shoot-out creates even more dramatic tension. These are or were very public places of wealth and power, locales in which these kids without homes are forced to act out their angst.

     Central to Ray's "operatic"-like work, moreover, is an attempt of the three major figures, Jim, Judy, and Plato, to create an alternative family in which they can live out their desires for love, acceptance, and quiet. Throughout Rebel without a Cause Jim's major desire is to find a group who will accept him as himself: a "cute" man-boy who  simply wants "no trouble." Judy wants not only to be loved, but, as she later discovers, to love someone. Plato not only needs someone to like him (a near impossible task for a budding homosexual in the 1950s—I was there, having moved the same year to a new city where I—although far younger—was greeted by sometimes violent hostility) but desires a father and mother who might offer him love. In the vacant and derelict mansion, the three play out their roles: husband and wife, father and mother, son and lover, washing over any apparent oppositions that might exist in those positions, as they propose to themselves their "brave new worlds."

     Fortunately, in James Dean, Ray found the perfect embodiment of all their desires, a quiet pretty boy with a pouting mouth, the director brilliantly positioning Dean between the two as their faces light up with joy and desire as he turns to each. So beautiful is his face and body, Dean need hardly speak.

     Mineo has the most difficult role, but plays it quite brilliantly. He not only desires Jim to be his father—"If only you couldna been my dad."—but what the second part of that line suggests—"We could have breakfast in the morning."—a lover, someone who has stayed near him through the night, a desire expressed also in his having a picture of Alan Ladd in his school locker. It is not only that Ladd—particularly in his role in Shane—is a strong fatherly type, but because of his strikingly handsome features was long rumored to have been involved in gay life, tensions played out, some gay historians have argued, in his many attempts at suicide. Mineo, who was in real life gay, absolutely lights up each time Dean—rumored also to have been bisexual—turns to him. Who wouldn't

     Legend also has it that Wood was having a relationship with Dean during the shooting—as well as with director Ray.*

     Obviously, the character Jim cannot share his love equally with both Judy and Plato, and it is that underlying reality that determines, in part, the end of this larger-than-life work. The meekest of all the film's figures comes alive as a kind of Western shoot-'em-up hero in the last few scenes, protecting not only his life but attempting to warn and protect Jim and Judy, now elsewhere in the mansion.

     Yet in those acts, he has crossed the line. While Jim has been partly responsible for Buzz's death, he has not intentionally attempted to kill him, and it was Buzz who demanded the symbolic "show-down." In actually taking up a gun, Plato symbolically becomes a killer (he has previously killed puppies), whose acts, dramatically speaking, must be punished. Ray ameliorates this seemingly unfair inevitability, however, by having Jim attempt to save his life, removing the clip from Plato's gun and brokering their exit from the Planetarium where Plato has holed up, and, more importantly, by allowing Jim to finally share his "skin" in the form of his coat—a gesture Plato refused in the first scene of the film—that represents the protective grace and warmth of familial and sexual love, an act that redeems the society and, at least temporarily, allows the two remaining youths to return "home." When, after Plato's death, Jim zips up the coat embracing Plato—despite the perversity it implies—he is clearly consummating his sexual act.

     Finally, Ray's great film typifies what I am describing as the "Los Angeles film genre." In these films an outsider comes to the city (Jim Stark is new to Los Angeles and is a born "outsider," dressing differently from everyone else except for Plato) seeking acceptance and love, but finding the former hard to come by unless he or she behaves in often perverse behavior demanded by others in the community. Ultimately, the hero comes to comprehend that there is no one kind of behavior in the vast spaces of the California city, and, embracing his own "outsider" self, is transformed into an Angeleno who discovers love.

 *Ray was also rumored to be bisexual, something he denied, but sagely commented, adding fuel to the speculation, that everyone occasionally has dreams or fantasies about same-sex relations. Whatever the truth, it is clear that Ray and  his writer worked hard, despite censorship codes of the time, to make it clear that Plato was gay, perhaps awakening the 16 year old Mineo's own sexual predilections.

Los Angeles, August 3, 2012

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