Film historians examine homoeroticism of Dean’s American teenage classic
“Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause,” by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel. (Touchstone, 2005). 384 pages, $24.95
Few films have impacted American culture like “Rebel Without a Cause.” Fifty years after its release, the movie that captured the modern teenage experience is considered a timeless classic. While chronicled and analyzed many times, “Rebel Without a Cause” never received the meticulous attentions of writers like Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel. The duo give Dallas film historian Sam Staggs (“When Blanche Met Brando,” and “All About “‘All About Eve'”) a run for his money in their quest to give as thorough an account into the steamy behind-the-scenes goings-on while “Rebel” rolled.
Arguably, the movie succeeded because director Nicholas Ray gathered the right people with the right chemistry. He conducted rigorous casting interviews up until shooting began to get the perfect young actors for the iconic parts.
A firebrand who identified with youth culture, Ray wanted to bring the vitality and confusion of adolescence to the silver screen in a realistic fashion. An admittedly terrible father, he had more issues with his children than a lifetime subscription to National Geographic. For example, four years before “Rebel,” Ray discovered one of his teenage sons in bed with his then-wife, actress Gloria Grahame.
Charismatic and manipulative, Ray became a father figure to most of his young cast, and considerably more to Natalie Wood. Throughout filming and even beforehand the 43-year-old director was having an affair with his 16-year-old lead actress, who was willing to do anything to get the part of Judy. The fact that Wood was also sleeping with co-star Dennis Hopper at the same time didn’t exactly help matters.
And although busy with Wood, Ray also had his hands full with tempestuous James Dean. Their relationship, while probably not physical, was described as a “spiritual marriage” by Dean’s pal Vampira. Another one of Dean’s friends commented, “It wasn’t always easy to know “‘who is seducing whom and who is being seduced by whom.'”
Although a notorious womanizer, Ray had occasional gay flings as well: According to this book, Ray spent two years with one of the male scriptwriters working on “Rebel.”
Adding to this already seamy sexual brew was young Sal Mineo, the gay actor who would later describe his character Plato as “the first gay teenager in films.”
While this element was not explicitly stated in the script, Mineo’s body language with Dean, along with some of Plato’s props and dialogue, seem undeniably queer to modern-day viewers. Indeed, the authors of “Live Fast, Die Young” spend a considerable amount of time analyzing the homoerotic aspects of “Rebel Without a Cause” (as well as Dean’s fluid sexual orientation). The authors theorize that the film sparked an open discussion of homosexuality in American movies.
When not focusing on the stars’ sexuality, this book offers a cogent overview of the film’s troubled production. The screenplay wasn’t completed until days before filming began, and Ray’s continual rewrites alienated the author, who for years refused to discuss his participation in “Rebel.”
A week’s worth of black and white filming had to be scrapped when studio head Jack Warner decided the movie was important enough to be made in color. Director and cinematographer struggled with the cumbersome, unfamiliar CinemaScope filming process, but nevertheless produced wonderful results. James Dean enchanted and enraged cast members with his unpredictable moods and diva behavior, frequently holding up production for hours but then delivering incredible performances.
The authors aren’t stingy with trivia. For example, the abandoned mansion where Jim, Judy and Plato briefly form a surrogate family was the same one used as Norma Desmond’s decaying manse in “Sunset Boulevard.” Nor do they shy from examining the pervasive influence of “Rebel,” from cheap juvenile delinquent movies to “The O.C.” They chronicle the further careers and tragic early deaths of James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood, and debunk any curse theories as superstitious nonsense.
However, their greatest achievement in “Live Fast, Die Young” might be a revival of interest in Nicholas Ray-directed films. While they don’t shy from Ray’s numerous failings and shortcomings, Frascella and Weisel champion him as a visionary who dealt with homosexuality and incest long before anyone else would touch it.
A sensational Marlon Brando biography apparently has photographic proof that “The Wild One” star enjoyed felattio on the giving end, that is.
Page 404 of “Brando Unzipped” (Blue Moon Productions, 2005) by Darwin Porter, which is available in the U.K., contains the infamous photo. It’s a tough call, but the close-up shot depicts a man who somewhat resembles Brando doing the Monica Lewinsky on another dude.
An excerpt from the book claims: “From Rock Hudson to Vivien Leigh, from Bette Davis to Cary Grant, Brando slept around, even managing to seduce two of America’s First Ladies.”
Porter (who has written books about Howard Hughes and Humphrey Bogart) claims to have spent 40 years researching Brando. Brando died in July 2004.
Daniel A. Kusner
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition of January 27, 2006.