Reel Pride: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Teen movies—of all genres—are so prevalent now that it seems hard to imagine that movies targeted towards and strictly about teens were not seen as commercially viable. In the 1950s, teens became regarded as a demographic with purchasing power, so products, movies, and eventually television started to be marketed to them. It is in this era that Nicholas Ray’s landmark drama film Rebel Without a Cause debuted, becoming the first major film to depict the problems that adolescents faced in both their social and home lives. Starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Corey Allen, Ann Doran, and Jim Backus, the 1955 film has since been interpreted through a queer lens. The sensitive portrayal of masculinity and harm caused to men by the patriarchy have given this classic film some queer sensibilities.
The film opens with its three lead teen characters picked up by the police: Jim (Dean) is drunk, Plato (Mineo) is arrested for killing puppies, and Judy (Wood) is out past her curfew. These three disturbed kids have been neglected by their parents—some literally, others emotionally—and take out their frustrations by acting out. Jim’s father (Backus) is henpecked by his demanding wife (Doran), and allows her to treat them both poorly. Plato’s parents abandoned him instead, just sending him money, and Judy’s father is controlling and strict. Jim and Judy strike up a friendship as Jim runs afoul of high school punk Buzz (Allen).
The primary reason why Rebel Without a Cause has a place in queer cinema history is Plato, the sensitive hurt boy who longs for male attention and affection. Watching this movie for the first time in years, I had forgotten that Plato is introduced killing animals. (Nowadays but not back then, cruelty to animals is linked to psychopathic tendencies, though I don’t think Plato is meant to derive any pleasure from it.) Throughout the film Plato is coded as homosexual, from his emotionally needy relationship with Jim, to his lack of conventionally masculine qualities. He also has a poster of Alan Ladd in his locker. While he is not explicitly homosexual in the movie, the implications are clear as day.
What’s even more refreshing is that Plato is accepted by the movie’s hero. Jim and Plato share a bond through their troubled home lives. And while Jim is presented as a typical all-American boy, he does not reject Plato for not exhibiting that persona. Their friendship has more than a tinge of homoeroticism, something James Dean (rumored to be bisexual) and Sal Mineo (homosexual in real life) reportedly picked up on and explored during film. Late in the film, Plato gives what can only be described as a romantic confession to Jim, though this relationship had to be subtextual and subconscious for censorship reasons. Even the conflict between Buzz and Jim is laden with homosexual desire manifested as violent competition, like the knife fight and the street race. However, the mere idea of two men being unafraid to show affection was groundbreaking at the time even if the film’s nominal romance was between Jim and Judy.
The theme of parents not relating to their kids is common in teen movies, but Jim, Judy, and Plato finding some solace with each other reminds me of the recurring theme in queer cinema: found family. With their home lives in shambles, these three create their own unique nuclear family. Jim and Plato need each other in lieu of their absent fathers. Judy herself might be in the role of girlfriend, but hers is the one issue that doesn’t quite get a satisfying conclusion. Her father wants to control her, for fear of her growing up. The film hints that he has an incestuous obsession with her maturing, newly desirable body, and she reacts by disobeying him. And so she hangs out with delinquents until Jim and Plato show her some decency and she becomes a part of their “family.”
Ultimately, Rebel Without a Cause does uphold heteronormativity, with Plato killed by cops and Jim introducing Judy to his parents. Jim’s dad vows to stand up for his son, and the threat of Jim’s mother’s matriarchy is quashed. Both Jim and Judy seem to grow from their rebellion, with the authority of the law maintained. I don’t mean that the film betrays its queerness; for its time, the film was shocking and brutal, and these themes were unheard of. Rebel Without a Cause is perhaps James Dean’s most iconic film, and has since enjoyed a queer following for its vivid color palette, melodrama leanings, and gay subtext. The film paved a way for a portion of the audience to have films cater to them, and in its own way laid foundation for the gay rights movement. Rebel Without a Cause had an attractive cast and themes of unrest and hormonal discontent. The film sizzles with aggression and dysfunction, but it’s also tender and compassionate.