For as long as film has been around, it has been an art form that is a representation of society and the culture from which it breeds. One of the most popular and critically acclaimed which represented the times around it was that of Rebel Without a Cause(1955), which challenged the ideas of masculinity in society and it was a reflection of many teenagers of that generation. It also broke grounds for the portrayal of its characters. How exactly did Rebel Without a Cause(1955) change the perception of masculinity in society and why is the film considered to be the poster child film of the 1950s youth rebellion? Masculinity at the time in the 1950s was in a state of uncertainty. Men were returning from war and did not know how to readjust to society. Many men were forced to become the bread winner of the family again as well as be the stereotypical father of the household. Rebel Without a Cause(1955) was a movie that was ahead of its time in terms of its symbolism and its direction. What many considered to be taboo, the film challenged the boundaries of society’s rules and yet reflected what so many had tried to keep hidden. It challenged the ideas of masculinity and it was a social commentary on the men returning home from World War II and it was a movie about the commonalities that still perforate today of teen angst.
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To analyze the masculinity in the film, one must first look at its actors as well as its characters. Christopher Castiligia wrote an article entitled “Rebel Without a Closet: Homosexuality and Hollywood” in which he examines the in depth relationships of the characters within the movie and the connections it had to homosexuality as it was reflected upon society. James Dean who starred as Jim Stark and who’s career spanned only three movies blossomed into a full blown star overnight and after his tragic death, his role in Rebel Without a Cause(1955) has turned him into an icon of cinema and he has become idolized ever since. He himself, was a gay male, not openly, but was very much the effeminate man that he portrayed on screen which is also possibly why it was done so effectively using a style of method acting. Jim Stark, was a rebellious teen who was strong and mysterious, yet also had deep feelings and emotions, which was unheard of at the time to even mention such a thing. His character is saddled by the fact that he has to be a tough character in order to conform to society’s demands. This is shown several times throughout the film in which he is swayed into fights that he doesn’t want to get into by being called a “chicken.” He has to fight back because that is what a “man” is supposed to do. On the other side of the spectrum is Sal Mineo who starred as the character Plato, was an openly gay male who in turn portrayed a “gay” character on screen even though it is not explicitly stated. The character of Plato openly pines for Jim, whom he looks up to and shows affection for. One could argue that it was the first portrayal of a gay man on screen. Jim’s father Frank is shown as a very effeminate man, one who is constantly put down by his wife and cannot control his son. This was a reflection of many fathers of the time, who were emasculated perhaps by not going to war or because of the societal pressures caving in. The characterization of these characters completely alters the archetype of what it is to be a manly man on screen and instead show emotion. Their characters have conflicting and yet very similar personalities. Jim takes the role of a father, whereas Plato takes the role of the son. One could argue that is the true extent to what the relationship takes, although the distinct camera shots seem to suggest otherwise. Men are a complex breed, men have to act tough, yet still be emotional enough to connect with their family.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955) brought about an important social issue in which many men had just come home from World War II and an important feature that men had to live up to was their propensity to act as tough bread winners who provided for their family. This male stereotype is played differently in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) as Jim Stark’s father was a man who didn’t live up to that stereotype. He lacked the leadership characteristic that was typical of what a man was “supposed to be.” In doing so, it became evident that Jim was searching for a father figure and in turn found his parent to be switched to some degree as his mother was acting like a father and his father was acting like a mother. This gender disassociation creates such a friction within Jim that all he can do is act out. He demonstrates this numerous times and all he is looking for is a father figure to set him straight in line. Instead he has to take up the mantle himself and become his own father.
The stylistic effects used within the film are some of the most iconic in history and contributes to the representation of the time with the music and the cinematography. The music within the film is a now classic soundtrack by Leonard Rosenman set the scenes of the film with its uses of Jazz music which reminds one of the 50s. The cinematography used within the film which was composed by Ernest Haller could be described as some of the “coolest” shots in the history of film. Many of the most iconic shots within the film are done with close-ups such as in the beginning of the film where we are first introduced to Jim Stark’s character as well as shots which focus solely on the character. By employing this effect, it showcased the brilliance and delivery of the acting.
How is the film a representation of teenage culture of the time? Rebellion was a very common trait in many young men and women in the early 1950s. Many of their fathers has been serving during World War II and thus were not able to be at home with their families. This left a hole in the young people’s lives as they wanted so much to have a father and yet end up turning against them as soon as they returned. This feeling of abandonment so to speak is what drove much of this rebellion of the 1950s. Such is the case when the three main characters within Rebel Without a Cause(1955) are introduced for the first time. The characters are so drastically different in terms of social class, status, yet eerily so similar in the case of their parents. Jim Stark who’s dad is not the father whom he needs to be. Judy whose father is completely distant and cold to her and then there is Plato’s parents who just aren’t there at all and whose father abandoned him. They all struggle with a similar paternal issue of fathers who just aren’t able to adjust to the “new generation” of the time. The family structure of each of these kids is all very confusing for them. They grew up with this notion of family and the father’s being perfect, that when they grow up and see that this is not the case, they have to find their own personal identity.
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Rebel Without a Cause(1955) created a new archetype for its generation. It created the James Dean character of a rebellious youth looking for a direction in life. One of the most iconic fashions of all time is James Dean in his red jacket and jeans which epitomized this sense of rebellion. Delia Konzett wrote an article entitled “Rebel Without a Cause: Approaches to a Maverick Masterwork” about Rebel Without a Cause in which he explains the film’s everlasting qualities throughout generations. She states “This legacy with its foregrounding of the radical potential of internal or self critique is what has appealed to the film’s diverse audiences over the years, who “have continued to see Rebel Without a Cause (1955) as a touchstone for imagining anxieties over coming-of-age, traditional values of family and community, threats from abroad, and the provocations of mass or consumer society (20).” Within the article she explains how specific scenes deal with the trials of an average teenager having to prove his masculinity and himself to his peers or else be picked upon as if it were as primitive as survival of the fittest. She analyzes one of the most important scenes in the film, The “chicie race scene” as one of the most important in which she explains “This scene centers upon a dangerous competitive car race that can be constructively interpreted as rite of existential and social bonding or more negatively as a Darwinian survival of the fittest in an era of late consumerism and capitalism with absurdity and chance as its major elements. It also captures the distinctly American fascination with the automobile and the liberating experience of driving and being “on the road.” One of the most intriguing aspects of his analysis is the American’s fascination of cars. They have to be fast, powerful and in that sense, it has to be a representation of power and masculinity. This scene is one of the most important within the film about having to prove one’s masculinity in order to be the “leader” of the pack.
The film ultimately culminates in Jim Stark finding his masculinity so to speak. In the end is quite a picture perfect sight of a “traditional” family structure as Jim, Judy and Plato all sit around an abandoned house, pondering their lives going forth. They act out living as children in a fantasy life. As soon as something tries to disrupt this perfect fantasy life, Plato goes crazy to an extent. The life he wanted is threatened and he essentially breaks down, brandishing a gun on everyone he sees. He succumbs to the desolate life of a teenager unable to cope with the problems around him, his familial structure failing him. The film has remained one of the most iconic films of all time because of how relatable it is to this day. To this day, Rebel Without a Cause(1955) could just as easily have as much of an impact as it did fifty years ago. Now more than ever society is changing where changes in masculinity are more accepted. Not only has Rebel Without a Cause(1955) become a voice for its generations, but in some ways a voice for many generations to come.
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