4.06.2011

Three men


After watching Rebel Without a Cause (1955; dir. Nicholas Ray) this week for probably the first time in ten or so years, it occurs to me that this is a near-obsessive study of men and masculinity at the crisis point of the mid-1950s—from the put-upon, ineffectual Frank Stark (Jim Backus) to the childlike, homosexual Plato (Sal Mineo, heartbreaking--and note the pin-up of Alan Ladd in his locker) to the moody, tender/tough Jim (James Dean), the only one of the three to effectively master the balance of “male” strength and “female” sensitivity. “What kind of person do you think a girl wants?” Judy (Natalie Wood) asks. “A man who can be gentle and sweet, and someone who doesn’t run away when you want them. Like being Plato’s friend when nobody else liked him—that’s being strong.” It’s clear (as film scholars like Steven Cohan, writing in Masked Men, have noted) that Rebel, largely through the figure of Dean himself, ushered in a new kind of male (anti-)hero--not to mention a new kind of screen acting, to be taken up by Brando and Clift, and carried on in present figures like James Franco, about whom I couldn’t help but think as I watched Dean here. Still an undeniably great film, and Ray’s direction here is, as always, superbly controlled. And the rawness of Dean’s performance really comes through after watching mostly films from the 1940s and early 1950s (as I’ve been doing for the last month or so).

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