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Near dusk, on the evening of September 30, 1955, a telephone rang at the main gate of Warner Brothers Studios. When the guard on duty answered, a woman on the other end said that she was calling from Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital. Speaking calmly, without emotion, she told him that an actor who worked at the studio, James Dean, had been killed that evening in a car accident. Though Dean had starred in a mere three films and only one East of Eden had been released at that point, the guard knew who he was. The untamed young actor's reputation in the industry was growing much faster than his film resume. And only a few days earlier, he had been stopped by security for speeding around the lot in his brand-new Porsche and told never to drive there again because he might kill somebody.
Immediately after hanging up the phone, the guard called Warners' publicity department, and word began to spread throughout town. "It was like a strange wind that came right through the streets of Hollywood," said screenwriter Stewart Stern about the news. And that wind blew quickly through Dean's favorite hangouts: Googie's diner, the Villa Capri, the Chateau Marmont. It cast a pall over that evening's black-tie functions: the Whisper Ball, sponsored by Jane Russell's new World Adoption International Fund, and the Deb Star Ball, a beauty pageant hosted by the town's makeup artists and hairstylists. At the Deb Star Ball guests thumbing through the official program were stunned to find a full-page ad that Dean had taken out thanking his makeup artist, which featured nothing but a close-up of Dean's eyes staring back at them. When the wire services got hold of the story, radio and TV stations around the country interrupted their programs to announce Dean's death to his growing legion of fans, young people who had responded enthusiastically to their first emotionally wrenching encounter with him in East of Eden.
Despite the immediate sense of shock and loss that accompanied the news, Dean's death might not necessarily have gone on to become such an enduring tragedy on the basis of East of Eden alone. After all, Dean's career had only just begun, and he wasn't the first young promising actor who would never get the chance to fulfill his potential. His sudden demise might have been just another sad story in a town full of sad stories, eventually fading away like a bad Technicolor print or a once-famous star of the silent screen. But the image of Dean was about to seep deeper into the public consciousness when, less than a month after his fatal accident, Warner Brothers released his second film Rebel Without a Cause.
Almost immediately, Dean's image became inseparable from Jim Stark, the character he played in Rebel. With his white T-shirt, blue jeans and red jacket, Dean was instantly transformed into an adolescent ideal. His magnificent confusion, pained fragility, sexiness and even his narcissism made Jim Stark the template for teen rebellion. In fact, in many ways, Rebel Without a Cause invented the teenager.
Largely because of his work in Rebel, James Dean remains an undeniable force half a century after his death. But Dean's presence is not the only reason for the film's continuing relevance. Rebel Without a Cause asserted a romantic, mythic notion of adolescence that remains with us, that colors the way we see our own youth. And its preeminence resulted from the intense interactions of many fresh, raw-nerved personalities who came together at critical junctures in their lives and careers, including actors Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo and fledgling screenwriter Stewart Stern. Even the film's young supporting players who portrayed the various gang members contributed to the film's authenticity. But more than anyone, it was director Nicholas Ray who continually stoked Rebel's fire.
The forty-three-year-old Ray was someone who revered youth, who viewed adolescence as a heightened human state and who refused to relinquish the teenager in himself. He was one of the great dark neurotic geniuses of American film. He raised the bar for emotional nakedness on screen, pushing his juvenile cast to reach ever more precarious heights of film acting. Ray had a dream vision of kids creating a world of their own. And under his direction, Ray's young cast coalesced into one large dysfunctional family, embarking on a journey rife with reckless behavior, deep devotion and betrayal.
Rebel Without a Cause is a film of sheer poetic expression that attempts to give shape to the internal feelings of kids alienated from the restrictions and contradictions of the adult world around them. At the time of its release, it frightened many parents with its violence, its upfront sexuality and its relentless desire to imbue teenagers with power and glory. But in many ways, the behind-the-scenes story is more provocative than the already provocative film. James Dean stands defiantly at Rebel's center, but the unbridled emotions that were channeled offscreen are the essential source of the film's dynamism and its endless ability to speak to the teenager in all of us.
Copyright © 2005 by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel
Chapter One: Birth of a Rebel
In the early 1950s, director Nicholas Ray was a regular at the classic Saturday night parties thrown by actress Betsy Blair and her husband, Gene Kelly the kind of exclusive Hollywood soirees that would find Judy Garland singing at the piano, Leonard Bernstein playing charades or Greta Garbo sitting casually on the edge of the Kellys' kitchen sink. Blair remembers the tall, handsome, seductive Ray with great fondness. "He was always lively and iconoclastic and full of serious opinions," says Blair, who calls him "a Melville hero" for the way he chased dream projects and battled against the confines of the studio system. Blair knew Ray to be a compulsive womanizer, gambler and drinker, although "never a sloppy drunk." But one night in July 1951, after their weekly party broke up, Blair and Kelly looked out their front window and encountered a bizarre sight.
"There was a little slope in front of our house," says Blair, "and I remember Nick leaving and instead of getting into his car, he sank onto the grass, just sort of lying there. I was ready to go out and get him. But Gene said, 'Let's see if he gets up again.' And so we waited, fifteen to twenty minutes. I think Nick was actually planning to lie there all night. Eventually, we did go out and get him." Like everyone else in Hollywood, the Kellys knew that Ray had just filed for divorce from his second wife, the quintessential film noir blonde, Gloria Grahame, after a stormy three-year marriage, but they had no idea what precipitated the separation. "We didn't know in the beginning what had happened," says Blair, "just that they were fighting and breaking up and that he was desperate. And then, when I found out, it was hard to believe." The real story behind the breakup was shocking even by Hollywood standards.
Earlier that summer, everything seemed to be going well for Ray. In June 1951, he signed a lucrative contract with RKO Pictures, negotiated by his powerful new agents at MCA, making him RKO head Howard Hughes's right-hand man. That year, with the red-baiting McCarthy hearings getting under way in Washington and the Rosenbergs on trial in New York, having a protector like Hughes gave Ray who had a history of leftist affiliations a security and stability he rarely felt in his peripatetic career. Hughes kept him busy that summer doing uncredited patch-up work on such potential RKO disasters as The Racket and Josef von Sternberg's Macao.
One afternoon late in June, Tony, Ray's thirteen-year-old son from his first marriage to journalist Jean Evans, unexpectedly appeared on the doorstep of the Malibu beach house Ray was renting next door to his close friend, producer John Houseman. On vacation from military school, Tony had made the three-thousand-mile journey from New York all by himself, without telling anyone he was coming. Ray was not home when Tony showed up, so Grahame, who had met Ray's son only once, when he was ten years old, invited him inside. When Ray arrived home later that afternoon, he walked into the bedroom and stumbled on a sight almost too outrageous to believe. He found Grahame and his barely teenage son "in bed together," as Ray described it years later to his friend, writer Gavin Lambert.
Nicholas Ray was someone who always allowed himself and those around him an astounding amount of moral wiggle room. But this level of crisscrossing betrayal was too much to bear. Ray exploded in fury, smashing up the house and flinging Tony out into the street. Then Ray took off, refusing to spend another minute in the house with Grahame. Tony slept that night beneath a neighbor's porch.
Ray and Grahame had a famously tempestuous relationship. Ray claimed he married Grahame only because she was pregnant with his second son, Timothy, who was born five and a half months after the wedding. Ray said he spent their Las Vegas wedding night at the craps table, losing almost all his money because he "didn't want this dame...to have anything of mine." Their marriage had no chance of surviving the events of that afternoon in June 1951. Immediately, Ray filed for divorce and moved for a time into the Garden of Allah, a hotel once popular with screenwriters and silent-film stars. Seething with rage and paranoia, he forced Tony to make a tape recording detailing what happened, and threatened to make the tape public if Grahame tried to seek a large alimony settlement. In the end, Grahame did not ask for alimony and received only child support for their son Timothy. Ray never played the recording or made any mention in court of what happened that summer afternoon which did not stop the story from becoming common knowledge. "In the circle emanating from Houseman's house we all knew," says actor Norman Lloyd, who was a friend of Ray's for many years, dating back to Ray's theatrical days in New York. Before long, the messy details of the scandal spread throughout the Hollywood community.
It's impossible to know what could have motivated Tony Ray and Gloria Grahame to engage in such a profound act of betrayal, devastating Nick's standing as a husband and father simultaneously. And Ray himself would never publicly venture an explanation. Even in private, he was reticent to discuss the events. "I remember asking him," says Gavin Lambert, " 'Do you think Tony did this in revenge for you neglecting him?' and all he said was 'Maybe.'"
Ray's marriage to Grahame may have ended with the scandal, but the relationship that began that afternoon in 1951 between the actress and Tony Ray did not stop there. In 1960, almost a decade later, they would stun Hollywood again by marrying each other, making Tony the stepfather to his half-brother Timothy.
Nicholas Ray survived the blow to his pride and it would not be long before he returned to the womanizing ways for which he was famous. Soon, Gene Kelly and Betsy Blair would find him back at their parties smooching with the likes of Marilyn Monroe. ("It was all very physical with him," Blair recalls.) But Ray would never get over the injury to his relationship with his son. And it would not be long before his rage turned to guilt, and even to an odd kind of curiosity, all of which funneled directly into his work.
Many factors contributed to Ray's passion for the story that would become Rebel Without a Cause. But his damaged relationship with Tony provided a key catalyst, a deeply personal underpinning to a film that would grow into a cultural phenomenon. Throughout the development of the script, Ray was "in anguish over his own role as a father," according to Rebel screenwriter Stewart Stern. "I think he hated himself to a large degree for failing as a father." Gavin Lambert concurs. "He should never have had kids," Lambert says. "He should never have been married. Nick had quite a few guilts. This was one of them. And it influenced his approach to the film."
Ray followed the dictum often attributed to one of his mentors, director Elia Kazan: "Turn trauma into drama." And indeed, Ray's art was fueled by personal trauma. In fact, much of his best work could be seen as autobiography. His troubled relationship with Grahame provided the raw material for one of his greatest movies, In a Lonely Place (which also starred Grahame), just as his disgust with the blacklist, which ruined the lives of many of his friends, would inform the plots of Johnny Guitar and the underrated Run for Cover. Using calamity to drive creativity is dangerous work. But Ray could pull it off. It was his gift, one to be envied, or so it seemed for a time. And eventually, Ray would find a way to channel all his alienation, confusion and curiosity into his most famous film, one that would ultimately transcend the personal realm to have a massive impact on generations to come.
Born To Be Bad
The sources of Ray's talents and genius are as mysterious as those of his Rebel star and cohort, James Dean, who, like Ray, sprung from the Midwest. Born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle on August 7, 1911, Nicholas Ray was raised in the small town of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Population: 50,000. His family was part of the first generation of Norwegians to settle in that part of the country and therefore, according to director Joseph Losey, who was also from La Crosse, "he was automatically on the 'wrong side of the tracks.' "
Ray's father was a contractor, and an alcoholic. His death, when Ray was sixteen, would have a devastating effect on his son. Late in his life, Ray would recount the night his father's mistress whom Ray said he once tried to seduce, in an uncanny foreshadowing of his own problems with Tony took him to a hotel room where he found the dying man lying in his own vomit. "A boy needs a father at certain times in his life so that he can kick him in the shins, so he can fight for the love of his mother," Ray wrote. A father, said Ray, is "a gauge against which the boy can measure himself. Take that away and the spine is lost."
Troubled paternal relationships would remain a persistent motif in Ray's life, just as they would in his work. "Nick didn't have a father. A drunk is not a father," says his fourth and final wife, Susan Ray. "I think he was looking for that. And when people have a piece missing, they magnetize it in different forms." That was certainly true of Ray. It was one of the major contradictions in his character that despite a distinct contempt for authority, he entered into a series of intense mentor relationships throughout his restless early career.
Attractive, ambitious and serious-minded, Ray catapulted himself out of La Crosse when, at sixteen, he created a series of local radio programs that helped him win a scholarship to the University of Chicago. In the early 1930s, he moved briefly to New York, where he met and eventually married Jean Evans, a young writer who became a well-known reporter for the liberal newspaper PM. During this period, Ray was invited to take part in architect Frank Lloyd Wright's Fellowship at Taliesin, Wright's Utopian artists commune in Wisconsin although Wright and Ray would soon have a falling-out, and Ray would leave Taliesin under a cloud of mystery. Ray returned to New York, where he joined the left-wing Theatre of Action and began a long, complex and often strained association with domineering director Elia Kazan. Kazan directed Ray in a play titled The Young Go First (the first of many ironic titles that would crop up throughout Ray's career). And under Kazan's tutelage, Ray was first exposed to Method acting, which would have a huge interlacing influence on his life and work.
In the year Tony Ray was born, 1937, Ray began working for the Department of Agriculture's Resettlement Administration, traveling throughout Depression-era America while writing and directing plays that starred coal miners, lumberjacks and farmers who dramatized their lives and recorded their music on his portable tape recorder. Ray's passion for American roots music led to a lifelong friendship with noted folklorist and ethnographer Alan Lomax. During World War II, and after Ray's separation from Jean Evans, producer John Houseman who knew Ray from the Theatre of Action hired Ray and Lomax to produce a radio show for Voice of America, which Houseman was running for the Office of War Information (OWI). Called Back Where I Come From, the radio show introduced the public to such legendary folk and blues music talents as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Leadbelly.
But it wasn't until 1944 that Ray got his first taste of Hollywood. Kazan hired Ray as an assistant on his first film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Kazan was impressed with the way Ray applied himself to studying filmmaking technique and the speed with which he was learning. Now, Kazan would have an even more acute influence on Ray's future. He showed Ray how to draw febrile, psychologically dense film performances from even the most resistant actors. And he also provoked Ray's pursuit of what he stubbornly viewed as the "truth" a gritty, neurotic version of the truth.
Two years later, in 1946, Ray would finally make the move to Hollywood when Houseman, who had grown very close to Ray, hired him to be his assistant at RKO Pictures. In a remarkably short period of time, RKO head of production Dore Schary took a chance on Ray and gave him his first film to direct. They Live by Night (1948) was based on Thieves Like Us, a novel by Edward Anderson about two young Depression-era outlaws (which was readapted almost three decades later by another Hollywood iconoclast, Robert Altman).
From the start, Ray showed himself to be a director of maturity and sensitivity. He displayed a special affinity for the reckless romantic poignancy of youth, something for which he would soon become famous. He also proved to be bold and risk-taking. For the first scene of the film, Ray scheduled a dangerous and difficult helicopter shot. Fraught with the potential for disaster, the shot could have ended his film career before it began. But Ray's gamble paid off. "For a man who had not always shown himself emotionally secure or stable, Ray handled himself with courage and remarkable skill," said Houseman. "From the first day of shooting his authority on the set was complete and undisputed."
After Ray proved himself with They Live By Night, Schary pressured him into directing A Woman's Secret, an uneasy blend of film noir and "woman's picture." For Ray it was the beginning of a subtly destructive pattern in his career: bouncing between intimate projects and hackneyed studio affairs. Schary's girlfriend had already been cast to star in the film: Gloria Grahame. Soon after shooting began, Ray started sleeping with Grahame and within the first month she was pregnant.
Stealing the girlfriend of the man who gave Ray his first directorial opportunity might have been career suicide if eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes had not suddenly swooped down at the end of 1948 to take over the studio. Schary was fired and Ray's position suddenly became more secure. Although he was no longer a young man in fact, he was nearing his forties there was something about Ray that motivated powerful figures to take him under their wing. Ray became Hughes's protege. In between the lesser assignments Hughes gave to him, Ray continued to make the occasional fine film for RKO, such as On Dangerous Ground and The Lusty Men, small dark gems with surprisingly idiosyncratic themes. And during his RKO period, he also directed two films for the independent production company of his drinking buddy Humphrey Bogart: Knock on Any Door and In a Lonely Place. Through these films, Ray won the respect of a small coterie of Hollywood insiders, but he was not a well-known name to the industry at large. Then in 1953, the capricious Hughes sold all his shares of RKO departing the studio as quickly as he had arrived and Ray decided to strike out on his own. In many ways, independence and the illusion of detachment from authority was the state that suited Ray best. He had also been having a deeply conflicted reaction to his relatively easy success in Hollywood.
"Brought up in the Depression, one of a generation with a strong anti-Establishment bias, he had been taught to regard hardship and poverty as a virtue and wealth and power as evil," Houseman wrote about Ray in his autobiography. "When success came to him in its sudden, overwhelming Hollywood way...he was torn by deep feelings of guilt, for which his compulsive, idiotic gambling ($30,000 lost in one night at Las Vegas) might have been a neurotic form of atonement."
Despite his uncertain feelings about his success, Ray became concerned about his Hollywood status. After leaving RKO, Ray turned to another powerful ally, agent Lew Wasserman, head of MCA, an agency that was playing a pivotal role in the shift of power away from the studios to actors and directors. Wasserman put together two projects for Ray to direct, the Westerns Johnny Guitar, starring Joan Crawford, and Run for Cover, starring James Cagney. Although Johnny Guitar was a hit (and later became a cult classic), Ray later told Gavin Lambert that making the film was "an appalling experience" and that Joan Crawford was "one of the worst human beings he'd ever encountered." Run for Cover, meanwhile, was a box-office disaster.
After nearly a decade in Hollywood, Ray felt his career was falling behind that of his former mentor Kazan, with whom he carried on a private rivalry. By 1954, Kazan had already directed such award-winning films as Gentleman's Agreement and A Streetcar Named Desire. He was finishing up On the Waterfront and planning East of Eden. Ray's films had not been in the same league, in terms of prestige. Both Johnny Guitar, made for the low-rent Republic Pictures, and Run for Cover, made for the B-movie unit at Paramount, were low-budget programmers.
Ray had to find a way to break this downward pattern. As he explained to his agent Wasserman, he was weary of doing projects for "bread and taxes." He was desperate to do a film that he loved. Ray saw himself as an artist first. He needed a personal project and he needed a breakthrough, something that would give him a little clout in Hollywood. And just when he craved it most, he found the perfect topic. It was screaming out from headlines across the country.
Throughout the United States in the early 1950s, frightening reports of teen violence terrified parents and public officials. In Memphis, two boys shot a teenage girl who dared to resist their advances. In Kansas City, Missouri, nine teens looking for a cigarette nearly beat a man to death outside Union Station. In Illinois, young members of the military were revealed to be part of a secret gang who kept scorecards regarding the use of marijuana, switchblades, blackjacks and pistols.
Between 1948 and 1953, the number of juveniles charged with crimes increased 40 percent, a statistic that alarmed the country. "We have the spectacle of an entire city terrorized by one-half of one percent of its residents. And the terrorists are children," a Boston judge warned ominously in 1953.
The media fanned the public's fury with stories of the troubled teen and juvenile crime, stoking high anxiety in the form of moral outrage. In September 1954, Newsweek asked, "Our Vicious Young Hoodlums: Is There Any Hope?" and, in the same month, U.S. News & World Report published "Why Teen-Agers Go Wrong" (two articles Ray would cite in his initial Rebel proposal). The U.S. News article was actually an in-depth interview with Richard Clendenen, an expert on juvenile crime who was the executive director of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. This committee, headed by Senator Estes Kefauver, would haul in high-ranking members of the entertainment business for a series of very public grillings about the media's effect on adolescent behavior.
At the time, all rebellious teen behavior was seen as evidence of a mushrooming problem with juvenile delinquency. It didn't really matter whether teens were breaking laws, breaking taboos, or bending household rules. Every aspect of the emerging teen culture with its new music, language and attitudes toward sexuality was viewed as threatening and incomprehensible. But in many ways, teens were simply expanding their own boundaries, engaging in their own version of manifest destiny, dazzled by what critic Geoffrey O'Brien described as "the glitter of fulfillment" that lit up the country in the prosperous 1950s, when being a teen was still a new concept. The word teenager did not even enter the language until 1941. And as the number of teens doubled in the wake of the postwar baby boom, young Americans had simply begun to stake out their own culture separate from adults, although in the mid-1950s, this landscape was largely undefined. That would all begin to change with the arrival of one movie.
Nick Ray was inevitably attracted to what was happening with kids. It fed directly into his guilt over Tony. It spoke to his own issues with authority. And it justified his own natural affinity for young people, a tendency that seemed to get stronger as he got older. ("The celluloid strip is a bloodstream for me and so is youth. It's what I live by," Ray would later say, in his self-mythologizing mode.) His growing passion rose to the surface one night in September 1954, after a screening of Run for Cover. Following the preview, Ray, Lew Wasserman and Wasserman's wife, Edie, had dinner in Ray's apartment at the Chateau Marmont. After watching Dragnet on television, Ray told Wasserman that he was frustrated with the direction his career was going. "I really have to want to do the next one," he said. "I have to believe in it or feel that it's important." Wasserman asked what Ray thought was important. "There are six films about War and Peace scheduled so I've given up on that," said Ray. "Well, what else is important?" Wasserman asked him. Ray paused for a moment, then finally said what was on his mind: "I want to do a film about kids. I want to do a film about the young people next door....I've done the stuff with the depressed areas, the misfits. Now I want to do a film about the guy next door, like could be one of my sons."
Ray had already dealt with the subject of juvenile delinquency in 1949's Knock on Any Door the movie that introduced the phrase "Live fast, die young, and have a beautiful corpse" but he was dissatisfied with the film's approach. It did not rise above the socioeconomic view of the subject that Hollywood had been mining since 1933's Wild Boys of the Road and 1937's Dead End. Ray yearned to make a film that would stand with 1950's Los Olvidados, director Luis Bunuel's caustic, surreal and poetic account of lost Mexican youth. "I wish Bunuel had made Los Olvidados before I made Knock on Any Door," said Ray, "because I would have made a hell of a lot better film." It's no coincidence that a thirty-five-dollar rental receipt for a print of Los Olvidados appears among the Rebel Without a Cause materials housed at the Warner Brothers archives. Ray was intent on avoiding what he called "slum area rationalizations." Instead, he wanted to focus on middle-class kids, as he explained to Wasserman.
Wasserman may not have known the full scope of Ray's intentions and, at the time, Ray seems to have had only the vaguest notion himself but he knew that his client was serious. So he took the notion of a film about young people to Warner Brothers. Immediately, the studio bit. Ray's suggestion was the right one at the right time. Warner Brothers had just begun a campaign to find fresh, new faces. The studio was looking for ways to target the largely underexploited teen demographic, despite the chilling effect of the Kefauver hearings. In fact, the Kefauver hearings may have unintentionally focused Hollywood's attention on the emergence of a new type of adolescent audience, one that was looking for edgier product, and a more sizzling reflection of their experience.
The studio suggested that Ray consider adapting Dr. Robert Lindner's best-selling 1944 book Rebel Without a Cause: The Story of a Criminal Psychopath, a property that had been languishing at the studio for years. But Ray immediately dismissed Lindner's book. He thought the case was too extreme: "It was neither the psychopath nor the son of a poor family I was interested in now."
Warners then handed Ray two scripts with youth-oriented themes but, to the director's chagrin, they were set in economically deprived areas. Ray reacted in frustration: "No, I didn't mean that at all. Not at all." Finally, an exasperated Wasserman said to Ray, "Warners wants to know what you do mean. Will you go up and talk to them?"
Now it was up to Ray to convince the studio. Ray drove to the Warners lot and met with the head of production, Steve Trilling, often referred to as Jack Warner's "henchman." Trilling certainly had the look of a henchman right out of an old Warner Brothers gangster movie: grim, overweight and given to smoking cigars. For forty-five minutes, Ray shot from the hip, telling Trilling stories he had gleaned from newspaper clippings and his own experiences about kids from "ordinary families."
After he had performed for Trilling, Ray reported to Wasserman, who checked with the studio. Later that afternoon, Wasserman contacted Ray with some good news. "They want to know if you can put down on paper what you told them," Wasserman said. Ray was thrilled and said he would try. He called his secretary, Faye Murphy who arrived at 7 P.M. and they worked feverishly through dawn.
The Blind Run
With the help of his secretary, Ray labored with the energy of an artist plugged directly into the Zeitgeist. He began his treatment with a burst of shocking imagery: "a man aflame" running toward the camera (a metaphor, perhaps, for the way Ray felt that evening), and a nearly pornographic scene of a sixteen-year-old girl, stripped to the waist, being whipped by three teenagers. These searingly graphic images would never appear in Rebel, and perhaps they were only meant to grab the attention of the Warners executives. In general, Ray's treatment had a lurid and exploitative tone. It lacked shape and depth. It was largely plotless. Still, he burst forth with some of Rebel Without a Cause's key concepts that very night.
Ray already saw his film as being built around a teenage trinity: a heroic boy (who would grow into the iconic figure of Jim Stark), a girl named Eve (who would lose her biblical overtones to become Judy) and Demo (a teenage psychotic who would eventually evolve into the groundbreaking figure of Plato). He concocted a knife fight, which would become one of Rebel's most memorable scenes. And Ray envisioned a suicidal car race a "blind run" that takes place in a tunnel with two cars speeding toward each other in the dark. This scene would later transform into Rebel's race off the side of a cliff the pivotal and influential "chickie run."
But the treatment's biggest break with convention appears as a side note in Ray's one-night downloading of ideas. "Youth is always in the foreground," he wrote, "and adults are for the most part only to be seen as the kids see them." These words signaled a remarkable change in the way this kind of material had always been treated and would ultimately represent Rebel's most important leap forward.
At 9 A.M. on September 18, 1954, Ray's secretary finished typing up the seventeen-page treatment he had disgorged all night long. He called it "The Blind Run" a title that foreshadowed the film's production, which would often feel like a headlong rush into the unknown. Ray called Wasserman, who immediately took the treatment out to Warner Brothers. Amazingly, by four that same afternoon, Wasserman phoned back, telling Ray, "You've got a deal. Go on out and pick your producer."
Ray chose thirty-nine-year-old David Weisbart to be his producer because he was the youngest on the Warners lot. Weisbart also "had two teenage children, which made me think he would bring a personal interest to the subject," said Ray. In addition, he had once worked with Kazan, as an editor on A Streetcar Named Desire. Weisbart would turn out to be the perfect producer for Ray. "He was a gentleman, one hundred percent mensch," says Dennis Stock, who was hired as the film's dialogue coach. "He was very unusual in Hollywood he was civilized. There was no eccentricity in this guy. He was the guy who covered everybody's ass. Everybody trusted Weisbart. They knew that he was a real pro. Nick without Weisbart would never have made the film."
But when Weisbart first encountered Ray's treatment, according to Ray, "he was in a state of shock." As Ray later wrote, "His first reaction was as if he had swallowed a hot potato. (Later, of course, he knew he had.) This was not surprising. To begin with, he was faced with an original story less a story at this stage than an idea and not the comfortable basis of an existing novel or magazine story or Broadway play. Also, the subject itself was potentially explosive."
Although Warners had given Ray the go-ahead to hire Weisbart and begin preproduction, the studio was wary. According to Gavin Lambert, "Warners was very dubious about it at first. It was a weird studio at that time. Jack Warner was a peculiar creature. On one level, he was ridiculous; on another level, very shrewd. He didn't really know in creative or technical terms what a good script was or what a bad script was. He had some kind of instinct about what would go down with an audience. And he liked prestige as well. They were both impressed with Nick and worried about him."
The studio insisted that Ray use the title of the bestseller they had previously offered him, Robert Lindner's Rebel Without a Cause, for which Lindner had been paid five thousand dollars. Ever since the studio optioned the book, Warners producer Jerry Wald had tried to turn it into a film. As far back as 1947, Marlon Brando was screen-tested for a possible role in a potential film version of Rebel (the same year Brando changed acting forever as Stanley Kowalski in Kazan's original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire). But Ray continued to feel that Lindner's case "was too abnormal" for the film he wanted to make.
While working on Rebel, Ray did attend two of Lindner's lectures at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Titled "The Mutiny of Adolescence" and "Must We Conform?," the lectures defended adolescent rebellion in the face of creeping conformity. Afterward, Lindner walked up to Ray. The psychoanalyst was perplexed by the fact that Ray had completely thrown out his book. He pleaded with Ray to reconsider or at least hire him as a consultant. Although the content of Lindner's lectures must have struck a chord with the director, Ray rebuffed him.
It's no surprise that Ray refused to work from a preexisting source; he had something much more personal in mind, something more intimate to process. Nevertheless, Ray had no problem calling his film Rebel Without a Cause, as long as he did not have to use a word of the actual book, which seemed to be fine with the studio.
In record time, Nicholas Ray secured a green light and a title. Now all he needed was a script and a cast. But that process would grow immensely complicated once Ray began to envision Rebel as a personal catharsis, and a challenge to the culture at large. As his idea expanded, Ray came to an inspired and potentially self-destructive decision. For the movie to be truly new, even the making of it had to be a unique experience, a Rebel act, an emphatic and defiant break with the past.
Copyright © 2005 by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel