Live Fast, Die Young
The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause
A new book by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel
372 pages, illustrated; Simon & Schuster/Touchstone Hardcover, $24.95
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When James Dean died on September 30, 1955, he was twenty-four-years-old and on the brink of stardom. At the time of the fatal car crash, the public knew of him from only one film, Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955), where he shaded John Steinbeck’s Cal Trask with more introverted passion than the author could have ever hoped for. It set off a wave of anticipation for his forthcoming projects, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and George Stevens’s Giant (1956), which were then in post-production—much to the chagrin of studio head Jack Warner, who was justifiably concerned about selling a dead leading man. But part of the world changed on that night, as if an entirely new value system had simply materialized, one suiting the novel brand of youthful angst which Dean unwittingly came to personify.
As far as the movies were concerned, teenage rebellion appeared to be a fresh concept in the ‘50s. Children born just after the Great Depression, essentially fatherless throughout World War II, they were then relocated behind a façade of milk and honey in burgeoning suburban neighborhoods, where white picket fences seemingly warded off conflict and negative outside influence. “As the number of teens doubled in the wake of the postwar baby boom,” write Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel in Live Fast, Die Young, their lively new book about the creation and aftermath of Ray and Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, “young Americans had simply begun to stake out their own culture separate from adults, although, in the mid-1950s, this landscape was largely undefined. That would all begin to change with the arrival of one movie.”
Rebel Without a Cause wasn’t the first picture to address dark teenage issues. Richard Brooks’s The Blackboard Jungle had been released just months before it in 1955, and Nicholas Ray turned his gaze to alienated youth in both They Live By Night (1948) and Knock on Any Door (1949). You could, in fact, trace the line back to Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), an admitted (and positive) influence on Ray; Maxwell Shane’s City Across the River (1949), which was based on the novel The Amboy Dukes by Irving Shulman, one of the writers involved on the Rebel screenplay; to such Depression-era chestnuts as William Wyler’s film of Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End (1937) and William Wellman’s extraordinary Wild Boys of the Road (1933).
Delinquent parenting, misdirected anger and the inability to express feelings and distinguish them from fact are common plot threads; but Frascella and Weisel make a compelling case for Rebel’s unique position in modern cinema: “Ray had decided that, from top to bottom, [the film] should grow directly out of these kids. More than just speaking their language, the movie should align with their natures…Ray wanted his kids’ experiences to bleed directly onto the celluloid, to permeate the movie.” To tap into the society that simultaneously worships and condemns its young, Ray found in Dean less an actor than an indisputably vital collaborator, one willing to draw from the murky depths of his own anguish to flesh out the director’s initially vague themes and intentions.
Ray benefited immeasurably from his input. Co-star Corey Allen, ‘technical advisor’/actor Frank Mazzola and scenarist Stewart Stern are among several of the remaining cast and crew members who supply the book with flavorful accounts of their cinematic alchemy, the director’s “occasional lack of eloquence,” and the succession of screenwriters he tried working with—among them Clifford Odets, who contributed the line “I got the bullets!”—to articulate the underlying tenderness of Rebel that only his star seemed to grasp. “Clearly, something remarkable happened on that Rebel set, especially between Ray and Dean,” observe the authors. “They gave each other the courage to strike out for something they had only sensed, and they succeeded in giving form to the dream life of teenagers.”
Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause
Film and theatre reviewers who’ve seen their work published in high-profile magazines and newspapers including Us, Entertainment Weekly, Premier, and Rolling Stone, Frascella’s and Weisel’s tight and polished (and, some might argue, superficial) approach sweeps Live Fast, Die Young along at a sprightly pace that never tires. They bend reverence with juicy digressions into lust and sex on the set, Ray’s relationship with teenage star Natalie Wood, her dalliance with supporting player Dennis Hopper, and everyone’s longing to somehow merge with Dean. The authors are also contributors to The Advocate and Out magazine, and excel in atmospheric ruminations of Rebel co-star Sal Mineo, his gradual outing, declining career and relevance as a gay icon. The seamless combination of objective reportage with gushing admiration for the film and a palpable fascination for the Dean/Ray mythos is absorbing, though Frascella and Weisel hedge any dense critical examination of Nick Ray’s method or James Dean’s Method.
While he stood just outside the gates of Hollywood’s A-list for much of the ‘50s, Ray was fêted by the crowd at Cahiers du cinema. (“The cinema is Nicholas Ray,” Jean-Luc Godard once proclaimed.) Empathetic toward characters weathering internal erosion, the confused, independent spirits wafting through Ray’s pictures often struggle to cast blame on outsiders or society in general for their unspoken personal defects and dysfunctions: Humphrey Bogart’s paranoid scriptwriter in In a Lonely Place (1950), the nomads tiptoeing around conformity in The Lusty Men (1952), a god complex amplified by cortisone in Bigger Than Life (1956). That last picture proved to be an eerie prediction of Ray’s eventual descent into addiction, with the director making a subliminal and prophetic cameo, reflected for an instant in the mirror of James Mason’s medicine cabinet. From They Live by Night to King of Kings (1961), study the gallery of protagonists long enough and a hazy portrait of Ray begins to form—artistic, temperamental, sensitive, demanding, overextending, rootless, brilliant, taciturn, dissatisfied, a carrier of passive-aggressive tendencies, an intense passion which, today, would surely be equalized and muted by Prozac.
Dean’s overnight tenure in Tinsel Town has been the grist for several books and countless articles. Charges of mysticism, poor personal hygiene (i.e., crabs), and hedonism have fanned the flames for a cult eager to mythologize, but his standing as a legend is founded squarely in Rebel. (East of Eden and Giant—which sizzles during the brief but steamy intimation of sex between Dean and Elizabeth Taylor—are for dedicated buffs and dutiful academics only.) Frascella and Weisel profile the notorious bohemian manner and Dean’s realization of, among other things, the homosexuality floundering within Mineo’s doomed character, one of the many significant elements of the picture that threatened to wake a dozing status quo. “He refused to be locked into the four-square 1950s Hollywood view of manly behavior,” they write. “He was not afraid to show fragility that might be characterized by some at the time as feminine…And his desire to seduce anyone who locked into his gaze knew no gender boundary.”
Have we seen so enigmatic a star/legend since? Dean brought an honesty to film acting both rare and inspirational, locked forever in place by Rebel and tragic early death. Had fate and Dean’s Porsche taken a different path, would the vulnerable young man have bloated to buffoonery and squandered his credibility over arduous decades of poor script choices, the province of Brando, Steve McQueen and Robert De Niro? Giant indicates the move to mainstream schlock and that, as an artist and star, he left at the peak of his game.