Watching Rebel Without a Cause in 2005 reveals a great truth about art: even though nothing has changed in the production (unlike live performances that can never be recreated—at best captured on tape or disc), the world around it has, yielding rich new meaning to a film that everyone “knows.”
Largely seen as one of the first films to ever present the newly coined “teenager’s” point of view, many of the youngsters—especially James Dean as Jim Stark—seem too old to be believable against today’s backdrop of reality TV. Leonard Rosenman’s richly dissonant score, with just a hint of jazz and the famous post-death big band chart dedicated by Buzz (Corey Allen) to Jim, is also dated, but still drives the action (pre-echoing West Side Story) even as the social commentary morphs from disillusioned, aimless gangs to Plato’s struggle to understand, much less accept his sexuality.
When the film was made, there was much speculation about who was sleeping with whom—straight or gay (cross-reference below). Seeing it now, Jim’s girlish giggles, his playful nose squeeze and landing on top of Plato’s bottom at the climax of their “fight” rings the queer bell loud and clear. Having finally felt the hope of love from the man of his dreams in the metaphorically empty “house,” Plato wakes up alone: deserted again, just as his parents had abandoned him years before. His ensuing rage is pitch perfect for the “Friends of Dorothy” both then and now whose love is sought, but only at the convenience of their married-to-another partners.
As he runs from the law, some gay-bashing thugs (not a few of whom might enjoy a hazing-session themselves) and his maid (Marietta Canty, who carries the weight and dignity of the entire black community on her shoulders with compelling ease) it’s clear that Plato is the “rebel;” his nameless cause is so abhorred by society and bottled-up within that his growing isolation can only find solace in killing: puppies, humans or himself.
For his part, Jim is more the “angry young man” than a rebel. His cause is dangerous: telling the truth and doing the right thing. He is surrounded by wimps: especially his father (Jim Backus, whose gutless subservience is a marvel). His extended cross-dressing scene was daring at the time, but post-The Birdcage is more embarrassing than startling and somewhat laughable: he wears the gaily coloured apron over his suit jacket which would long ago have found its way into the closet.
Sweater-girl Judy (Natalie Wood) tries to be the romantic interest. Her own family has a certain level of dysfunctionality, particularly the risqué kisses to the lips then the cheek of her flustered dad (William Hopper). Because there is so much incest and sexual abuse by those in authority currently filling our modern courts and media, this moment feels repugnant and contrived. With Buzz and Jim readily available, it’s clear that director/writer (er, well some of it) Nicholas Ray chose to have a cinematic “revenge fuck” for discovering his own son sleeping with his step-mother a few years prior to the Rebel project.
Fifty years later, the gangs are still here and deadlier, eschewing chains and knives for guns and crack. On a societal level, homosexuality is no longer a deep dirty secret, but on an individual level the ever-present jeers, bashings, furtive couplings and sense of isolation give Rebel a universality that all of the Gay Pride in the world will never eclipse. JWR