Much like Jeff Buckley, the early death of James Dean propelled him to the heights of ‘what if’ stardom thanks to exceptional work in a small number of films. Discounting uncredited roles in his very early career, Dean only has three films on his resume – all classics. Of the three, he received Oscar nominations for two of them: Rebel Without A Cause is the omission from this incredible track record (as in the same year he received a posthumous nomination for his work in Giant).
Where I enjoyed, but was not blown away by, his role in Giant – I found myself utterly captivated by James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. He leads an incredibly trio of performances of himself, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo (who both received Oscar nominations for this film). There is no doubt that the film belongs on his young shoulders with a performance that is as psychologically considered as it is powerful.
I’ve put off watching Rebel Without A Cause for years as I assumed it would be one of those films that I would get annoyed by some whining teenage leads. However, no matter what the title tells you – there is definite cause behind all the behaviours of the three leads (apart from Sal’s character killing puppies… that’s just psychotic, even if he has been abandoned by both of his parents).
Parents, and parenting, is at the heart of all of this. The three lead characters all need different things from their parents which they’re not being given. Dean’s Jim is desperate for his father to be someone to aspire to, Wood’s Judy wants her father to show that he cares and Sal’s Plato just wants someone to show that he is loved.
Rebel Without A Cause has gone down in history for many a reason. Not only does it show the big ‘what if’ over James Dean’s career as well as breaking ground in telling a story aimed at teenage angst, but it also features some interesting homosexual undertones in Plato’s hero worship of Jim. Whilst I don’t think it’s overtly sexual, Plato clearly craves love and acceptance from a sincere male figure – it’s just that he imprinted on the ridiculously attractive Jim.
It’s a tragic melodrama done in the way that Nicholas Ray knows best. I thought he would be able to top Bigger Than Life for me and yet here we are. Man, I love Golden era Hollywood.