Rebel Without a Cause is the eternal teenage movie. Released in 1955, it is undeniable that there are things that feel dated and melodramatic, but the undercurrent of tragedy and the sense of listlessness has managed to resonate through decades. The adulation that Plato Crawford feels for Jim Stark, played by Sal Mineo and James Dean, respectively, is one of the most striking and contemporary things about Rebel Without a Cause. It borders on obsession, but is tinged with the sweetness of vulnerability. Nicholas Ray, the director, worked with the two actors for weeks at his Chateau Marmont bungalow before filming in order to perfect the contours and shading of the characters and their relationship. The actors mined their pasts and improvised scenes, further fostering a bond between them that would heighten the subtext and the emotionality of the film.
Although a homoerotic subtext is present in the film, it is in a screen test dated March 23, 1955, where this element of the relationship is stressed. The test is a variation on the existing mansion scene from the film, but the actors are left to explore their characters and the dialogue in a way that feels surprisingly fresh and exciting. The first thing we see is Mineo doubled over in a laughter both excessive and frightening. Dean jumps over the railing of a staircase and lands near Mineo. Mineo then pins him against the staircase and falls into him in laughter. They wrestle and touch each other for increasingly prolonged moments. Mineo can’t keep his eyes off Dean. He gazes at him lovingly, hanging on his every word. He is mesmerized. They wrestle and grab at each other until Mineo rests his head on Dean’s shoulder. It is deeply intimate. Natalie Wood, also present, barely registers to the men. According to Michael Gregg Michaud, Mineo’s biographer, “The filmed rehearsal was important to Ray for several reasons. It provided him with an opportunity to explore the erotic tension he wanted to represent in the film, and it set the tone for the challenging and intriguing direction he intended for the character of Plato. Sal didn’t realize what was being asked of him. ‘I couldn’t understand,’ he said later, ‘couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Something was happening to me. I had no idea or understanding of affection between men. And for the first time I felt something strong’” (44). I find this quote extremely compelling. Here Mineo felt the first stirrings of a sexuality that he would explore later in life. The film was, for him, an awakening, a moment of realization, however veiled and unexamined. Maybe therein lies the power and resonance of this film, the thing that makes it so enduring; its ability to reach people where they are, its ability to feel concern and empathy for the outsiders, its ability to hone in on and help people explore their own emerging identities. The power of that is so immense it manages to break through the heightened melodrama of the finished film.
In the end, Ray was pressured by the censors to alter the relationship between the two men. Ray’s interpretation of the bond between Jim and Plato was seen as too overtly gay. The screenwriter agreed, having become horrified at the interpretive liberties Ray had taken with his script. However, in the finished film, Plato’s love for Jim is still palpable and can be charted through a constellation of increasingly subdued but ever present glances, touches, and movements. Throughout the film, Mineo’s gaze and it’s vulnerability highlights a desire and an adoration much more complex and intimate than friendship or hero worship and it is this gaze that makes the inevitable conclusion of the film all the more wrenching.
Michaud, Michael Gregg. Sal Mineo: A Biography. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010.