James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act

When Jim Stark (James Dean) is first seen in Nicholas Ray's Rebel without a Cause (1955), crawling drunkenly along the street and playing with a toy monkey, he is wearing a suit and tie. "You're tearing me apart," he screeches at his bickering parents after they come to pick him up from the police station where he is being held for being drunk and disorderly.

Re-released in a new digital restoration, the film still carries the same seething sense of angst and adolescent rebelliousness that made it such a sensation on its first release, almost 60 years ago. It is also still a thoroughly contradictory affair.

Dean himself remains the most paradoxical of movie stars. On the one hand, he stands for a self-obsessed post-war generation that rejected the hypocrisy of the adult world, chafing against all authority and institutions. Early on in Rebel without a Cause, when he tells a sympathetic cop of his longing for "one day when I didn't have to be all confused and I didn't have to feel that I was ashamed of everything, when I felt I belonged some place", he is echoing thoughts shared by tormented adolescents everywhere.

On the other hand, Dean is also the poster boy for an age of teenage consumerism.

"Don't I buy you everything you want? A bicycle? You get a bicycle, a car," Jim's father (played by James Backus, who also voiced Mr Magoo) plaintively reminds his delinquent son. Jim is not an impoverished kid from the wrong side of the tracks. He is from an affluent middle-class American family. The 17-year-old may scorn the timorousness and moral cowardice of his parents... but that doesn't stop him spending their money or driving to his new LA school in a car they provided.

"You look at Rebel without a Cause and no one I knew had a car. You couldn't identify really with Rebel without a Cause. I literally didn't know anyone who had a car," British producer David Puttnam, a teenager in the mid-Fifties, recalls of his initial reaction to the film. "But what you did identify with was the confusion and the angst."

Dean's early death, aged 24, in a car crash in the year that East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause were released, ensured that his image as the moody outsider has been preserved as if an aspic. When it came to playing troubled, narcissistic loners, he had a febrile intensity that neither the muscular, more belligerent Brando nor the edgy but more reserved Montgomery Clift could match. It is widely assumed that he was playing a version of himself.

Such an assumption does Dean a disservice. He took his craft very seriously. He described his method for portraying Jim Stark as "a constant simplification, a constant gleaning down to the specific point at hand, the line or the story – what the character is trying to do at this moment, constantly trying to find the core".

When in 2005 I interviewed Frank Mazzola, the former LA gang member hired by director Nicholas Ray as a consultant on Rebel without a Cause, he said that Dean was meticulous in the extreme in his preparation for the film.

For around a month, Dean tailed Mazzola wherever he went. He wore the same clothes. They played basketball together, went to coffee bars and Mazzola invited Dean to his home for meals. All the time, Dean was absorbing information, studying Mazzola's gestures and behaviour. "There's a shot of him standing against the wall. He is wearing the red jacket, the T-shirt, the Levi's, the boots. He has one foot up against the wall and his arms are kind of crossed. That's exactly how I used to talk to people," Mazzola claimed.

Rebel without a Cause was a turbulent shoot. Both Nicholas Ray and actor Dennis Hopper had been having an affair with Natalie Wood. There was backbiting and jealousy. Dean's focus didn't waver. Just like Jim Stark in the film, ready to risk his life to prove a point against Buzz, Dean was fearless, especially when behind the wheel. Combined with the vulnerability he also showed on screen, it made him an utterly distinctive screen presence. Dean had enough aggression and swagger to appeal to the guys and a sensitivity combined with extreme good looks that inspired slavish devotion from Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo in Rebel without a Cause – and still enraptures latter-day followers like actor James Franco.

As Elia Kazan noted (in Kazan on Kazan) after a difficult time making East of Eden with him, Dean was insecure, spoiled and sometimes abusive toward colleagues – in short, a "sick kid". That, though, is part of the secret of his enduring popularity. "You can't not like a guy with that much pain in him."

'Rebel without a Cause', 'East of Eden' and 'Giant' are re-released on 18 April, at BFI Southbank and selected cinemas nationwide

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea