This Wednesday I caught an advanced screening of the new Zac Efron vehicle, Charlie St. Cloud. Over the course of the cheesy drama, I fell for Mr. Efron once again (I’ve been having Zac attacks since I watched the first HSM), entranced by his boyish brooding, forever-furrowed brows and puppy dog pout. As I sat there, giddy as a hopeless Biebliever, I started to wonder where this stupid-in-lust big-screen teen icon business began, or rather who I should blame for my irrational desire to squeal every time Zac moves (it’s a disease). What I came up with was not Elvis or his pelvis (too musical, I think) but the godfather of cinematic teenage rebellion, fellow blue-eyed brooder, Mr. James Dean.
Like Efron, Dean made it big on TV before blowing up movie houses with East of Eden. After getting his big break, he landed his first official starring role, the lead character in the classic teen drama, Rebel Without a Cause. Even if you haven’t seen this movie, you’ve undoubtedly heard of it, or seen a picture of Dean in that unforgettable red jacket. If you’re anything like me, you were immediately enticed by that pictoral, and Dean’s perfectly pensive expression. But you really need to watch it in it’s full-out Cinoscope glory to get a full grasp of how delighfully dreamy Dean, and the state of teen cinema, was back in the 1950s.
Rebel Without a Cause follows Jim Stark (Dean), the new kid at Dawson High, a school somewhere in suburban L.A. Jim’s never been able to catch a break at his old schools (apparently, his family moves every time he acts out), and he’s really sick of it and his totally detached parentals. He just wants to find somewhere he fits in. Enter Dawson High hottie, Judy (Natalie Wood) and adoring bro, Plato (Sal Mineo), both of whom seem entranced by the purposeful troublemaker. But, like every other teen movie misfit of the last fifty years, Jim’s also makes enemies: tough-guy Buzz (Corey Allen) and his gang of greaser goons. They challenge him to a game of chicken with stolen cars. Jim hates being called a chicken more than he hates lines, and so he agrees. But when things get out of hand, he starts reconsidering his rebellious streak and what it really says about him and his life.
The film is quite engaging, especially if you’re a fan of a quality coming-of-age drama. The socially defiant teen is a cinematic icon that will never fade from film, because quite frankly, teenage rebellion is always blossoming, just in different forms. Dean’s version, however, may be a bit too pure for the Miley Cyrus generation. Sure there’s some drinking, suggested promiscuity, violence and epic parental conflict, but it’s nothing in compared to the spray paint-huffing girls from Thirteen, or even Michael Cera’s pyromanical french alter ego In Youth in Revolt. He’s more of a thinkers revolutionary, a Jordan Catalano if you will, spending more time staring at you with his baby blues and leaning against things than actually doing something. And when he does try and act out, it’s pretty tame. In the first scene, he crawls into the fetal position and plays with a toy monkey, while over-the-top drunk. Later, he moos during a school trip to the planetarium (he was trying to make a joke about Taurus), causing the “real” badasses of his school to whisper, “Isn’t he cute?”
The thing is, Dean is cute, real cute actually, and that’s what pulls you in at first. But as the movie and his character develop, you come to see him as more than just the most perfectly unkept movie star. Like when he cuts through another one of his parents’ endless arguments, collapsing in his chair and yelling that they are “tearing [him] apart.” It seems melodramatic on paper, but you can’t help but believe him on-screen because his face matches his words almost perfectly. He’s coming apart at the seams right in front of your eyes.
Although Dean’s emotions are dead-on, his look is a bit too old for his character. He’s supposed to be 17, but he looks like 25. Watching him carry a bagged lunch seems somewhat absurd. If you didn’t know the story, you might think he was a teacher, or an older brother, bringing his sister the soggy sandwich she left on the kitchen counter. Especially when you see him stand next to baby-faced Mineo. But none of this is Dean’s fault. Teen film directors always seem to cast older actors, hoping for more depth. In most cases, their plan doesn’t pan out (see:almost every terribly awesome teen movie or TV show from the 90s). But here, our leading man more than makes up for the age difference. In fact, without him, the movie would likely fall apart.
In truth, Rebel Without a Cause is far from perfect. Like it’s protagonist, it’s slightly confused. The score is much too loud and dramatic in certain moments, making what could have been a serious moment seem silly. Also, Natalie Wood tries to hard to be edgy and misunderstood. Her eyes bulge out of her head whenever she has a meaningful monologue. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t really understand why she got an Oscar-nom and Dean got nada.
Mineo, on the other hand, is fairly deserving of buzz. Although he’s character can be a bit creepy at times (he basically follows Jim around, attempting to regain his lost father figure), you can’t help but feel sad for him. The scene where he initiates a family-themed role play with Judy and Jim is devastating thanks to Mineo’s overtly overeager eyes and childlike grin. Even a taste of real love is enough to make him look and feel like a kid again.
As you probably know, Dean died in a fatal car accident a year after the movie finished shooting, sadly leaving us with nothing more than a taste of the superb acting he had to offer. If he could do adolescent yearning so right, just imagine what he could have done with quarterlife crisis cinema. Or middle-aged melodrama. Unlike Efron, and all the other teen idols of today, we’ll never get to see him grow up, fade away or crash and burn. He’ll always that dreamer in the crimson coat to us, forever waiting for his chance to break out.