The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after censor/stick-in-the-mud Will Hays, regulated film content for nearly 40 years, restricting, among other things, depictions of homosexuality. Filmmakers still managed to get around the Code, but gay characters were cloaked in innuendo, leading to some necessary decoding.
For queer viewers, Rebel Without a Cause is seminal for Sal Mineo’s portrayal of Plato -- whom he later referred to as the first gay teenager on film -- but the entire movie is bathed in a gorgeously gay, Cinemascopic light. From a queer (and queer-friendly) cast and a bisexual director to a possible on-set same-sex affair and the aforementioned pioneering gay teen, Rebel remains one of the most important films in the queer film canon.
That being said, it’s also kind of a turkey. Time has not been kind to Rebel Without a Cause. Today it comes off as overwrought and cloyingly melodramatic to the point of ham-fistedness.
But Dean’s and Mineo’s performances, as well as director Nicholas Ray’s deft direction, manage to keep it from lapsing interminably into schmaltz. At its core, the film is a sensitive plea for tolerance and understanding -- from family and from society. Dean plays Jim Stark, the titular rebel whose home life is falling apart thanks to an overbearing mother and a weak-willed father.
It’s the 50s and apparently the answer to domestic bliss is domestic violence. That blow to feminism aside, Rebel actually offers a very interesting examination of masculinity that was perhaps ahead of its time. Without a strong male role model, Jim feels inadequate and flies off the handle whenever he gets called a “chicken” -- that is, when anyone questions his masculinity. As a new student at school, he finds himself an outsider and strikes up an unlikely friendship with another outsider: the bullied loner, Plato.
Plato awakens in Jim a sense of paternity he finds lacking at home. He and Judy (played by one of the premier hags of the 20th century, Natalie Wood) attempt to become surrogate parents to Plato. The idea of a non-traditional family, particularly after rejection from one’s own family, is a theme with which LGBT viewers can easily identify.
As a result of his relationship with Plato, Jim is able to define on his own terms what it means to be a man -- that is, what it means to stand up for what he believes in.
Jim’s loyalty to and love for Plato is extraordinary because -- no tea, no shade -- Plato is obviously gay. Inarguably one of the most blatant homosexual characterizations of the Hays era, the Motion Picture Production Code office made sure to send a memo to Warner Bros. head Jack Warner, warning him against “inference of a questionable or homosexual relationship between Plato and Jim.” But while Plato’s sexuality is only hinted at, the writing’s on the wall and it’s outlined in glitter: baby gurl is driving a Vespa, has a picture of Alan Ladd in his locker and he idolizes Jim with an almost naked abandon.
At one point, he’s even swinging around a rubber hose like it’s hardly his first time at the (gay) rodeo.
Ray had always intended the character of Plato to be gay, even naming him after the ancient Greek philosopher and noted proponent of dude-on-dude love. According to a 2005 Vanity Fair article on Ray, the director was aware of Dean’s bisexuality and urged him to use in his performance. For their intimate scene in the abandoned mansion, Dean instructed Mineo to “look at me the way I look at Natalie.”
Iconic writer and veteran shade-thrower Gore Vidal even claimed that Ray, also bisexual, had an affair with the 16-year-old Wood as well as Mineo (also 16), “while the sallow Dean skulked in and out.” Perhaps Dean, at 24, was a little too long in the tooth for Ray, though he felt a deep kinship with his leading man. As for Mineo, Ray may have felt a little something different. Describing the young actor, Ray compared Mineo to his his son Tony from his first marriage, only “prettier.”
Mineo would go on to become a queer icon in his own right. In the 1960s, Mineo realized his attraction to men (perhaps debunking VIdal’s assertion) and by the 70s he had come out as bisexual. But his career faltered. He was stabbed to death in 1976 in West Hollywood, the rumored victim of some rough trade. That urban legend persisted for years because investigators found gay porn in Mineo’s apartment, but the man eventually charged with his murder didn’t know Mineo and it was likely a simple case of robbery. Famed gay-baiter James Franco brought Mineo’s final days to life in his 2011 film, Sal.
Proving that life often imitates art, Plato also meets a violent and untimely end -- the only end acceptable for most gay characters under the Hays Code. Even though he is a sympathetic character -- and portrayed as such -- Plato’s still gotta go.
Another tragic character in Rebel that doesn’t get as much attention is Jim’s arch nemesis, Buzz. Almost immediately, Buzz has an ax to grind with Jim, the two engaging in a knife fight during a field trip to the planetarium. What can I say, kids in the 50s kept it really real.
But before their famous drag race, Buzz shares an intimate moment with Jim, letting the mask of machismo fall, if only for a second.
Buzz and Jim are more alike than different and under the bravado they’re both scared kids trying to find their way in the world. That they’re not allowed to be sincere -- one of the virtues Plato attributes to Jim -- is a comment on the society they grow up in.
It’s the same society that keeps Plato in the closet. And the same society that tells Jim being called a chicken makes you less of a man. The same society that makes him find his father’s emasculation disgraceful. This tender, even romantic, moment before Buzz’s firey death matches the intimacy shared between Jim and Plato in later scenes. So of course, Buzz has gotta go.
It’s as if a man expressing emotion to another man is a sin worse than, or akin to, being gay. But then again Jim’s sensitivity is his saving grace. The difference is Judy. Their love is pure and true and most importantly, normal; because failure to conform to society has dire consequences. The film, however, seems to recognize a need for change and so it’s no wonder it struck a major chord with audiences -- particularly teens -- when it was first released. Here was the new voice of a generation, prematurely silenced.
Even if Rebel Without a Cause doesn’t really hold up so well today, it still speaks to teens or anyone seeking to be understood. It’s also one of the most influential films to come out of the 50s; just ask Paula Abdul, should you find her in a rare moment of coherence.