How the ultimate visual chronicle of adolescent alienation almost didn’t happen—many times over.
The story of how Rebel Without a Cause became a film is at times almost more interesting than the movie itself, though first-time authors Frascella and Weisel pay determined homage to that cinematic touchstone throughout their engaging and learned book. In 1954, director Nicholas Ray told mogul of moguls Lew Wasserman that he wanted to do a movie “about the young people next door,” a dramatic departure from the usual approach of depicting all troubled teens as coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ray was attached by Warner Bros. to the long-gestating Rebel, a psychiatric study of a young psychopath. Script after script followed, with everyone from Leon Uris to Irving Shulman banging out treatments (playwright Clifford Odets even provided a few ideas). As Ray’s vision stuttered forward—he knew what he wanted, but couldn’t articulate it—the troubled and brilliant cast started to cohere. Natalie Wood was a precocious 17, cruelly abused by her stage mother and looking for sexual validation from everyone from Ray to her costar, a young Dennis Hopper. Sal Mineo, a strangely handsome boy from the Bronx, gave a homoerotically charged performance that immortalized him as the first (fairly) obviously gay teenager on film. Meanwhile, Ray tried to seduce Brando wannabe James Dean into his picture, though in this account it’s hard to tell exactly who was playing whom. The actual shoot was no easier than the preproduction. Nosy studio heads were nervous about Ray’s bold ideas; a thick web of jealousy and sexual intrigue entangled all the principals; and Ray’s use of actual teen gang members in the cast caused problems. The dénouement is fittingly sad: Dean died just before the film’s release, and Ray’s career quickly sputtered out, to be revitalized briefly decades later.
A passionate depiction of how art can create, inspire and destroy—all at the same time.