Co-authors Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel have done the worlds of film, pop culture and human rights a huge favour by documenting the facts, fiction and fantasy of a landmark film that resonates just as deeply now as at its première 50 years back.
More importantly, sailing through this well-crafted, if a tad “gossipy” tell-all, prior to a re-viewing of the half-century re-release, special edition DVD (cross-reference below) pays more dividends than General Electric.
Family relationships (forget about values!) are the glue both on set and behind the scenes. Learning that Nicholas Ray’s son, Tony, ends up bedding then divorcing his step-mother, Gloria Grahame, adds verisimilitude to Ray’s affair with Natalie Wood and possible dalliance with James Dean, who himself might have “done the nasty” with the "eyes-that-can’t-be-ignored,” Sal Mineo.
Interfering relatives abound: Wood’s mother, Ray’s wives, Dean’s delinquent father, and the extended family of their adoring throngs.
We learn that the shooting of Rebel was plagued with problems: Cinemascope 101, disappearing stars, writer credit follies, but saved by equally important tools, method acting, the power of improvisation (especially Dean’s—just who was “directing” his performance?) and the personal vulnerability of every member of the cast who cajoled, up-staged and slept with each other as the situation warranted. Free love ahead of its time.
As a documentary account to the comings and goings of cast and crew, budget overrides and studio politics, the book serves a most useful and insightful purpose. Where it soars is in the subtext of the film itself. Is it the call to arms for teenagers of every generation? Does its candour push the envelope of sexual orientation, family angst and racism wide open?
The deaths of many of the principals (Dean, Wood, Ray) are discussed in detail and the “curse” of the film is broached in a titillating manner. But the book’s greatest triumph is forcing the longtime viewer back to the sources (and hopefully, the first-time viewer to a rental outlet: note to producers, several of my twenty-something colleagues/relatives returned a blank stare when I mentioned the film—perhaps not as “universal” as the authors would have us believe).
But on my second look, all was revealed.
This magnificent study of young people in the ‘50s (whose title was “borrowed” from a wholly different project) wasn’t about Jim Stark and his rebellion to his time and family; it was about Plato. Self-described as the “first gay teenager in films,” it was his homosexuality that had no cause: considered a mental illness at best, abhorred and literally stamped out (think of the empty pool struggle as gay bashing) at worst. Plato was the rebel (“Will you come home with me, Jim?”)—systemically disenfranchised from his “cause.”
That leaves Natalie Wood as the first on-screen fag hag.
Snap up a copy of this easy-reading volume, rent the anniversary DVD and decide for yourself! JWR