James Dean received Oscar nominations for two of his three big movies—"East of Eden" and "Giant"—but he's best remembered for his performance as Jim Stark, the troubled teenager at the center of 1955's "Rebel Without a Cause." Here, in 22 slides, is the backstory behind that seminal film.
The Movie Owes Something to Shakespeare
Warner Bros. bought the rights to a book by a psychologist called "Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath." But director Nicholas Ray wasn't interested in adapting a clinical study for the big screen. Instead, he took inspiration from "Romeo and Juliet," which Ray called "the best play written about juvenile delinquents."
Marlon Brando Did a Screen Test for "Rebel"—in 1947
Back then, it was envisioned as a completely different movie, with another director. A number of writers worked on the screenplay—including Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Suess—but the project was eventually shelved. To check out Brando's screen test, click here.
Studio Executives Had Their Own Ideas About Casting
If Nicholas Ray had bowed to their wishes, "Rebel Without a Cause" would have starred clean-cut heartthrob Tab Hunter or Natalie Wood's future husband Robert Wagner. But the director had no doubts about who he wanted for the title role: James Dean.
Dean Was Initially Wary of the Director
Nicholas Ray wrote about his first encounter with James Dean for a 1956 issue of Daily Variety: "He had been in the room less than a minute when I thought: He's like a cat. Maybe a Siamese; the only thing to do with a Siamese cat is to let it take its own time. It will come up to you, walk around you, smell you. If it doesn't like you, it will go away again; if it does, it will stay."
Filming Began in Black and White
Soon after "Rebel Without a Cause" went into production, "East of Eden" hit theaters and it became clear that James Dean was going to be a major star. That meant "Rebel" was no longer a B-movie. Studio brass ordered a switch to color (in the then-new widescreen CinemaScope format), Dean got rid of the glasses he'd worn in the black-and-white footage and his wardrobe was revised to include the iconic red windbreaker.
Ray Balked at Casting Natalie Wood
Sixteen-year-old Natalie lobbied hard for the part of Judy, the teenage gang leader's girlfriend who becomes Jim Stark's love interest. She saw it as an opportunity to move beyond her innocent image as a former child star. Within two weeks of their first meeting, she and Nicholas Ray, who was 43, began a secret affair—but even then he hesitated to cast her. Ray thought Natalie was "too Hollywood" for the role.
Natalie Was Given a Makeover
Ray reportedly came around when Natalie landed in the hospital after a car accident and a doctor called her a "juvenile delinquent." After the director cast her as the wild and rebellious Judy, she underwent a transformation to look the part. This involved some padding around the hips and a custom-designed bra, still known in Hollywood as the "Natalie Wood bra."
One of the Gang Was More Than Just an Actor
Frank Mazzola, who played "Crunch," had actually belonged to an L.A. street gang called the Athenians. He was given an office and doubled as a technical advisor, choreographing the switchblade fight at Griffith Observatory and schooling his fellow actors in authentic gang behavior.
The Cast Bonded at the Director's Bungalow
Nicholas Ray often threw parties in his three-bedroom bungalow next to the swimming pool at Chateau Marmont, the famous hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Before long, he and the cast were like one big family.
One "Family Member" Was Unhappy
Dennis Hopper, who played "Goon," was dating Natalie Wood at the same time as Ray, which caused a lot of friction between them. The director punished Hopper by cutting his lines and scaling down his role.
Ray Gave Dean Tremendous Latitude
Much of James Dean's performance—the opening scene involving a drunken Jim Stark and a toy monkey, for example—was improvised. In fact, Nicholas Ray let Dean make so many decisions that Dennis Hopper claimed that Dean was the true director of the movie. But Hopper later changed his mind, noting that Ray "gave Dean the freedom he needed ... [the director] was intelligent enough to let the creative forces work."
Dean Took a Lesson From Mr. Magoo
Jim Backus, who played Jim Stark's hen-pecked father, was better known as the voice of Mr. Magoo, and he taught James Dean to talk like the near-sighted cartoon character. Dean put that skill to use when he delivered the line, "Drown them like puppies."
Sal Mineo Played the First Gay Teen in a Hollywood Movie
Although the word "gay" is never spoken, it's obvious that Mineo's character, the fatherless misfit Plato, has a crush on Jim. ("Hey, you want to come home with me? I mean, there's nobody home at my house, and heck, I'm not tired.") During the filming of the mansion scene near the end of the movie, Dean directed Mineo to "look at me the way I look at Natalie."
The Switchblades Were Real
Corey Allen, who played gang leader Buzz Gunderson, accidentally cut James Dean during the knife fight. With Dean bleeding, Nicholas Ray stopped the cameras. The star was furious. "Can't you see this is a real moment?" he protested. "Don't you ever cut a scene while I'm having a real moment!"
Dean's Knife Was Sold at Auction for $12,000
That was in 2015. A year later, a T-shirt that James Dean wore in the movie fetched a little over $6,000. No word on the whereabouts of the red jacket, which Dean kept after the movie was finished.
These Two Had the Movie's Most Memorable Lines
When Jim Stark asks Buzz why they're about to risk their lives, driving stolen cars straight toward a cliff, the gang leader responds like a philosopher: "You got to do something, now don't you?" Dean's most quoted line, directed at his character's parents, comes earlier: "You're tearing me apart!"
Dean Was the Consummate "Method" Actor
He was known to curl up in a fetal position before filming a scene. At other times, he kept the rest of the cast and crew waiting while he holed up in his dressing room, preparing for his performance. "What the hell does he think he's doing?" said a crew member. "Even Garbo never got away with that."
The "Cliff" Was Built on a Warner Bros. Set
It wasn't nearly as high as it appears in the "chickie run" scene. Shots of the Pacific Ocean were added later.
The Empty Pool in the Mansion Scene Has a History
It appeared five years earlier in the opening scene of Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard." But in that movie, the pool wasn't empty and William Holden's dead body was floating in it.
The Director Changed the Ending
Nicholas Ray's original idea was to have Plato plunge to his death from the top of the Griffith Observatory. But that ending proved too expensive to shoot.
Dean Died Weeks Before the Movie's Premiere
Released in October 1955, just a few weeks after James Dean died in a car crash, "Rebel Without a Cause" was a box office hit. Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo received Oscar nominations for their roles. Like Dean, both died relatively young. Mineo was stabbed to death by a pizza deliveryman in 1976. Los Angeles police attributed Wood's death in 1981 to "drowning and other undetermined factors."
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