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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

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Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is a film that sympathetically views rebellious, American, restless, misunderstood, middle-class youth. The tale of youthful defiance, which could have been exploitative - but wasn't, provides a rich, but stylized (and partly out-dated) look at the world of the conformist mid-1950s from the perspective of the main adolescent male character - a troubled teen with ineffectual parents, who faces a new school environment.

The screenplay (by Stewart Stern from an adaptation by Irving Shulman of an original storyline synopsis by director Nicholas Ray) was based on an actual case study (contained in Dr. Robert Lindner's 1944 factual book titled Rebel Without a Cause: The Story of a Criminal Psychopath) of a delinquent, imprisoned teenage psychopath in the post-war years. The film was originally titled The Blind Run - the same as the title of the series of vignettes, both violent and strangely erotic, that Ray had penned. The actual film's title, Rebel Without a Cause, was the same as the title of Lindner's psychological study - signifying the rebellious and idealistic protagonist's search for a 'cause' - honesty and decency in a hypocritical world.

The colorful wide-screen Cinemascope feature is most remembered for being the film that best presented the talent of young charismatic cult star James Dean, shortly before his premature death in 1955. It opened at the Astor Theatre in New York on October 29th, 1955, about a month after the death of its star (on September 30, 1955) on a highway in his sports car.

It also served as a springboard for the acting careers of its two other stars Natalie Wood (in her first non-child 'adult' role) and unknown 16 year-old actor Sal Mineo. It affords a classic, semi-glamorized portrait of three troubled, frustrated, anguished, and identity-seeking teenagers - all outsiders, alienated and outcast from the world and values of parents and adults, who attain maturity through rebellion and tragic circumstances. In the film, Dean formed a friendly bond with the other two characters: Wood as confused teenaged Judy, and Mineo as a strange, adoring boy named Plato - the film's sacrificial lamb by film's end.

The reactionary film is considered Hollywood's best 50's film of rebellious and restless youth (and sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll) that spawned many other lesser teen exploitation films in its wake. [Other films that caused the same sensation included the earlier 50s film The Wild One (1953) with Marlon Brando, Blackboard Jungle (1955), and High School Confidential (1958).] It has been surmised that Sal Mineo's teen-aged character in the film was obviously gay and troubled by typical problems of in-the-closet homosexuals in the 50s - the film disguises his problems, but hints at the possibility that he is seeking out Dean's character because he rejects fake machismo.
[All three leading stars, who experienced troubled lives of their own, suffered premature deaths under unusual and tragic circumstances - a car crash at age 24 in 1955, a mysterious drowning at age 43 in 1981, and a stabbing-murder at age 37 in 1976.]
The film received only three Academy Awards nominations (without wins): Best Supporting Actor (Sal Mineo with the first of two unsuccessful career nominations), Best Supporting Actress (Natalie Wood with the first of three unsuccessful career nominations), and Best Motion Picture Story (Nicholas Ray). It wasn't nominated for either Best Picture (won by the short, unassuming romantic drama Marty (1955)) or Best Director for Nicholas Ray. Ironically, Dean was not nominated for his role in this film (although it eventually became his iconic career role), but was nominated instead for his Best Actor performance as insecure, tortured, neurotic loner and unappreciated son Caleb "Cal" Trask in his first major film role, East of Eden (1955). He was also nominated as Best Actor in the next year for his performance as Jett Rink in his third and final film, Giant (1956), filmed in the summer and early fall of 1955 and released in 1956 - a year after his death.

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