In 1955, James Dean became a household name for his portrayal of Jim Stark in the movie Rebel Without a Cause. Dean, who had recently been critically acclaimed in East of Eden, made Rebel, then went on to film the movie Giant. Shortly after, he was violently killed in a car accident in Hollywood at the age of 24, just before Rebel was publicly released. The world was devastated, and never quite got over it. James grew up very close to his parents, but his mother died suddenly when he was 9, and James’ father shipped him off to live with a family member. A young bisexual man with a penchant for fast driving, he had no idea he would become one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons.
Meanwhile, 16 year old Natalie Wood played the character Judy. Natalie slept with the much older director, Nick Ray, to get the part. Wood had an entire childhood in movies and a difficult home life and she was trying to establish herself as an adult actress before she was even an adult. Natalie grew up with a mother who acted as Natalie’s stage manager, pushing her to abusive levels to succeed in Hollywood. Her father was a drunk, and she never knew she had a different birth father. Natalie tragically drowned at the age of 43, a young mother of 2.
Lastly, barely 15 himself, Sal Mineo played John Crawford, called Plato by his friends. Sal grew up Italian in New York to parents who were coffin makers. A bisexual teen with a preference for men, he got his big breakthrough in Rebel and acted in many films over the following years before being murdered by being stabbed in an alley during a mugging, at the age of 38.
I watched Rebel recently for the first time. Hollywood movies at the time seemed to focus on happy little Caucasian families, Dad works, Mom cleans, brother plays baseball, and sister wants a new dress. Rebel was different. It took three rather privileged spoiled and emotionally volatile teenagers, thrusting them into the spotlight, and giving teens all over America an understanding on the big screen that they hadn’t experienced before. No wonder the movie became iconic.
Jim’s dad just wouldn’t stand up for himself. Jim’s mother was emotionally abusive, constantly manipulating, complaining, and shaming, but his father would duck his head, avoid, and sacrifice his own interests to keep the peace in the home. Even when Jim begged his father to stand up for himself, he wouldn’t do it.
Judy’s dad was tough on her. He seemed to prefer her little brother, and he spent a lot of time ignoring Judy. When she kissed him to get his attention, he grew angry; when she kissed him again, he slapped her face with an open palm, driving her from the room in tears, as Judy’s mother watched in shock. He refused to talk to her about it later.
And Plato is the saddest of all. Emotionally disturbed and terribly lonely, Plato was being raised by his housekeeper; his father had left when Plato was a toddler, and Plato’s mother was frequently gone. His father payed child support, but Plato didn’t want it, he just wanted his dad.
The movie opens in the police department, where all three teens have been arrested: Jim was drunk and loitering, Judy was walking the streets at night, and Plato had killed some puppies out of curiosity.
Things go crazy from there, well, in a 1950s way. We are much more densensitized to stories like this in 2016. But for the 1950s, this movie was insane. Teenage violence and angst, family drama, internal pain, bullying, gun violence, and tragic deaths. And the theme of it all, coming out of this movie, was the idea that while these fathers and mothers created these children, they were stepping out of where they came from, and living life on their terms.
Finishing this film, I thought about fatherhood, about my father and my stepfather and the impact that each has had on me over the years, and I thought about being a father. I thought of these three actors, who each met their tragic end, and I thought about these three characters, and about their fathers, their origins, where they ended up. And then I looked at where I am, where I have ended up, and wondered what is in store for me and what is in store for my sons, and for theirs.
In some strange sense, we are all of us Rebels Without Cause. Although every human story is unique and different, each human has an origin, a set of parents that they derive from, a father and mother that they appreciate and resent and resemble and rebel against. And we, each of us, take our individual stories and we rebel. We create our own. And none of us plan to have a tragic end.