“Rebel Without a Cause” airs on Turner Classic Movies

James Dean in Rebel Without a CauseIt might seem strange to celebrate the 80th birthday of an individual who  never lived to be 25, but such is the fascination the American public has with  James Dean.  Born on February 8, 1931, Dean remains a 1950’s cultural icon,  despite appearing in only three films, and living to just the  decade’s  midpoint.  James Dean’s second film, “Rebel  Without a Cause,” (1955)  will air Saturday, July 2, at 12:30 pm on Turner Classic Movies.  Directed  by Nicholas Ray, “Rebel Without a Cause” features James Dean in his signature  role as the trouble teenager Jim Stark, along with co-stars Natalie Wood and Sal  Mineo.  Although the title was taken from a 1944 book written by Robert M.  Lindner, “Rebel Without a Cause” is not based on the book.

Jim Stark (Dean),  a 17 year old who has recently moved to Los Angeles  with his parents, is having problems adjusting to his new environment, as he  struggles with the conflict of conforming with his peers or rebelling.  As  he becomes increasingly alienated from his folks, Jim gravitates towards a  couple of new friends, who are undergoing similar problems.  Plato (Mineo)  is a 15 year old boy who idolizes Jim, almost seeing him as a father figure, and  Judy (Wood), who  is trying to find some meaning to her life.   Unfortunately, Jim has also attracted the attention of a gang of bullies, led by  Buzz, who engages Jim in a knife fight, and later goads Jim into participating  in a “Chicken Run”, an activity that involves driving stolen cars towards a  cliff, the winner being the driver who stays in his car the longest.  When  this game results in Buzz’s death, Jim realizes that telling his parents or the  police will bring problems.

“Rebel Without a Cause” has been called Hollywood’s first teenager movie, as  the film was among the first to explore teenage angst.  As good as James  Dean’s performance was, it was his death one month before the picture’s release  that instantly gave “Rebel Without a Cause” its lifelong cult status.   Although Dean did not live to enjoy the success of the film, several of his  co-stars also received praise for their work in the picture, including Natalie  Wood, Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams.  Reportedly, Natalie Wood  was not director Nicholas Ray’s choice to play the part of Judy, as she wasn’t  Ray’s idea of a wild teenager.  While the film was being cast, Wood was in  a car accident, and when Ray went to visit her in the hospital, a doctor was  overheard referring to Natalie as a “juvenile delinquent.”  “Did you hear  what he called me Nick,” Wood asked Ray…”Now do I get the part?”

Although James Dean did not receive an Academy Award nomination for his work  in “Rebel Without a Cause,” he was nominated for Best Actor for the role of Cal  Trask in his debut film, “East of Eden,” which made Dean Hollywood’s first ever  posthumous nominee.  James Dean was also nominated for Best Actor for  playing Jet Rink in “Giant,” (1956) which was released a year after Dean’s death  in a car accident on September 30, 1955.  Dean remains the only actor to  garner two posthumous Academy Award nominations.

Notes:   According to Forbes Magazine, James Dean’s estate still  earns over $5 million a year.  Dean was originally slated to star as boxer  Rocky Graziano in the film “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956), but his death  resulted in the role going to Paul Newman.  There originally was an overlap  in the shooting schedules of “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant”, but Elizabeth  Taylor’s pregnancy caused a delay in the production of “Giant,” allowing Dean to  appear in both films.