Tuesday, October 27, 2015

'Rebel Without a Cause' Told a Tale That is Still Socially Relevant

"Watch out about choosing your pals. You know what I mean? Don't let 'em choose you."

Frank Stark (Jim Backus)

Ten years ago, as the 50th anniversary of the premiere of "Rebel Without a Cause" approached, film critic Roger Ebert wrote that the movie "has not aged well."

Well, that movie is 60 years old today, and it still doesn't seem to be aging gracefully — although it may have more social and (dare I say it?) political relevance today than it did in 2005. The 1950s, after all, have been reviled as a decade of conformity, a Leave it to Beaver decade, by the political left in this country for a long time — and in many (but not all) respects, the decade deserves that reputation.

But we are living in a time that is every bit as judgmental about anyone who doesn't share the popular opinions on everything as the '50s generation was about the nonconformists of that time. This is not reviled by the left because it embraces many of the left's values, but it is every bit as harsh and unforgiving to anyone who steps out of line.

In the 1950s, the buzz phrase was juvenile delinquency; the problem with that is that it was a blanket phrase that was used for many things, some completely unrelated, and it came to be epitomized on screen in the '50s by the likes of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, who were regarded as more sensitive than their predecessors. In many ways, I think Dean is the forgotten one of the three because his light was extinguished so prematurely — four weeks before "Rebel Without a Cause" premiered.

I didn't really understand that when I was a child. I heard people speak of James Dean, but I kept wondering why he made so few movies if he was so great. Then, of course, I found out that he died in a car crash at the age of 24. The only movie to be released during his lifetime was "East of Eden," in which he played a role similar to the one he played in "Rebel Without a Cause."

And, in the process, he became the poster child for teen angst.

I agree with Ebert. The film hasn't aged well.

Even so, there are not many young people who won't recognize themselves or people they know in the young people in "Rebel Without a Cause." There are some things that are universal and eternal — teen angst is one of them.

But true teen angst, it seems to me, is a symptom of something deeper, and "Rebel" touched on those deeper issues — dysfunctional relationships with parents being high on the list — but never really resolved them. And, frankly, who hasn't felt that way at some time and to some extent? Teens today seem to have the same issues with their parents as they did when I was a teen — and, I assume, my parents had those same issues with their parents.

The circumstances differ, but it's really the same group, isn't it? There is always at least one who had only one parent. There is always at least one who has both parents and feels he is being smothered by them. There is yet another who has both parents and is ignored by one or both.

Dean played the teenager who had both parents and was being smothered by them. "You're tearing me apart!" he wails to them in what may be his most memorable line from a meteoric career.

Natalie Wood's character was Dean's love interest. She had an emotionally distant father — clearly uneasy with a blossoming teenage daughter in the house who yearned so for affection that she risked his alienation by simply giving him a peck on the cheek or putting her arm around his shoulders.

"Girls don't do that sort of thing," he reprimanded her.

"Don't do what?" she asked incredulously. "Love their fathers?"

Then, after she had met and grown to know Dean, who was the new boy in town, Wood's character said — in an equally incredulous manner — "I love somebody. All the time I've been ... I've been looking for someone to love me. And now I love somebody. And it's so easy. Why is it easy now?"

Not long before, when the two were together for the first time and found themselves outside Wood's home, Dean asked innocently, "Is this where you live?"

"Who lives?" Wood asked.

Both Dean and Wood were tragic figures in their own ways — but the most tragic figure probably was Plato, played by Sal Mineo. Plato had no father in the house and barely had a mother, who had a habit of running off on adventures and leaving her son in the custody of the housekeeper. In the rear–view mirror of 2015, it seems obvious that Plato was homosexual.

He, too, yearned for male affection but not from a father he had never really known. He was clearly drawn to Dean.

"Hey, you want to come home with me?" he asked after the game of chicken run that took the life of another disaffected youth. "I mean, there's nobody home at my house, and heck, I'm not tired. Are you? See, I don't have too many people I can talk to. If you want to come, we could talk, and in the morning we could have breakfast like my dad used to. Gee, if only you could have been my dad."

Mineo was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Jack Lemmon in "Mister Roberts." Wood was nominated for Best Supporting Actress but lost to Jo Van Fleet in "East of Eden." Nicholas Ray was nominated for Best Writing but lost to Daniel Fuchs in "Love Me or Leave Me."

Dean wasn't nominated for Best Actor for his performance in "Rebel Without a Cause." He was nominated for "East of Eden" but lost to Ernest Borgnine in "Marty."