James Dean as the Iconic Rebel Figure
James Dean as the Iconic Rebel Figure
The Oxford English Dictionary defined a rebel as “a person who resists authority, control, or convention” . These are the characteristics of James Dean’s screen personas in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden. In a time where conformity was a dominant ideology in society, rebellion became a way to display your own individuality. Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden both respectively deal with the vexing problem of the asocial youth who remain stubbornly delinquent against the nuclear family.
Each respective film touches upon the puzzling subject of the 1950s, which is juvenile delinquency. The films also provide ammunition for the ideological rebellious behavior for teens to parody. Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden are both concerned with young people “estranged from their communities and struggling to define themselves differently than the norm” . James Dean was an attractive rebel figure because he represented the raw-nerved emotions of being an adolescent while he also asserted a romantic, mythic notion about, which became attractive to audiences young and old.
Dean’s upfront sexiness and relentless desire to imbue honor make Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden films that withstand generational changes and remain prevalent within teenage society today. James Dean as the archetype for the ‘rebel’ character personified a decade of defiance, and his screen portrayal of the iconic rebel sparked a cult following that superseded his life. The continued relevance and renowned status of Dean’s screen persona is prevalent because of its “sympathetic treatment of adolescent anguish” that each director concentrated on.
The enigmatic nature of the rebel icon made it easy for the viewing audience to grab hold and manifest their personal principles onto it. Dean was catapulted to a cult figure as he evoked the submerged pain and spoke for a generation of people who had sense of being stifled and smothered by values that were imprisoned by. Furthermore, Dean molded the formation of the “tough-but-tender” iconic teen rebel in the 1950s, and became a commodity and the legendary figure of teenage angst.
Dean’s unbridled emotions both on and off screen became essential in both Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden as they channeled the teenager in all of us . The 1950s were a time when teenagers were struggling with their own identity and this idea of conformity was oppressive to their individual growth. James Dean epitomized the ‘rebel’, as his inability to stick to confined conformity both on and off screen was a major asset during 1950s filmmaking. The rebel character that was present in both films was an attempt to glorify individuality.
Dean’s protagonist characters in each respective film were alienated, vulnerable and antisocial, which were standard traits of the common rebel. The 1950s became an era where individualism had to be tempered to suit the demanded conformity. The ‘rebel’ icon as a whole offered refuge in a time where adolescents were trapped in environments created by political and social forces beyond their control, which impeded their ability to make their own choices or realize their aspirations.
Filmmakers like Ray and Kazan attempted to assert their individuality by creating these rebellious characters that went against the accepted norms and fought for what they wanted to achieve. Ray was acutely aware that the recognitions of the attractive young rebel would intonate a large following, and casting the Hollywood bad-boy, James Dean, created a synergy between Dean’s screen persona, Jim Stark, and his real life counterpart. With his magnificent confusion, pained fragility, and unwavering sexiness, Dean became the template for teenage rebellion.
Rebel Without a Cause exemplifies a thinly veiled attempt to search for authority that catapults into an attempt to search for an identity for oneself. On the other hand, in Kazan’s films, he exploited Dean’s screen persona as the rebel anti-hero in American movies, democratizing and linking the rebellious behavior to root in American values . This was also seen in Rebel Without a Cause; however, this idea was predominant within East of Eden. By Kazan doing this, Dean as a rebel character, but also the film East of Eden became symbolic visions and vehicles of change.
The integrity of the family formed the backbone conformity in the 1950s and non-conformity based on a non-traditional family was something that had not been fully explored. The non-traditional nuclear family is something that was taboo; however, both Ray and Kazan deal with them in their respective films. In Rebel Without a Cause the use of gender-role reversal is apparent; and within East of Eden, the idea of an absentee mother is present. These non-traditional nuclear families pave the way for the rebel character that Dean personifies on screen.
Dean is used as a sentimentalist with a yearning to refurbish the struggling nuclear family. Since the nuclear family played such an influential role, Hollywood saw it as worth saving and worth reconstructing. During this decade, the nuclear family dominated, so it was important to reconstruct the failing nuclear family in order to promote the conformity the government and society sorely desired; in cases where the nuclear family could not be restored, sickness or injury became the typical Hollywood scapegoat.
While the nuclear family plays an important role in understanding the rebel character, the family plays a background role within the film itself. The nuclear family within Rebel Without a Cause features gender role reversal where Dean’s father is a weak pushover and is controlled by his overpowering wife, that ultimately forces Dean to react in a rebellious manner. These non-traditional gender roles confuse the teenage characters and propagate the rebellious characteristics as a mean for garnering attention.
In order to right these wrongs, Jim adopts a surrogate family, whereby Judy is his wife, and Plato becomes the adoptive son. Since there is a lack of a traditional nuclear family, the escape to the abandoned mansion removes Dean from the “compromises of the real world” whereby he is able to live with Judy and Plato in an “idealized version of family life”, which is when he comes to the realization that he no longer needs to “equate masculinity with violent rebellion” and perpetuates his reintegration into society.
Additionally, Elia Kazan was fascinated with James Dean’s personal struggles, which helped him connect to his rebellious character as Cal in East of Eden. Kazan used Dean’s personal problems to his advantage, exploiting them and creating a tumultuous nuclear family that mimicked the biblical tale of Cain and Abel. The “love and hate” plotline that deals with forbidden love and explosive passions is reticent of the well-known biblical tale. Cal – defiant, disobedient, and uncompromising – provokes the central conflict within the film, which impersonates his biblical counterpart Cain.
Cal himself is stuck between the “brooding coast of his mother’s sin” and the “sunlit valley of his father’s righteousness”, which adjusts and brings to light the coexistence of good and evil within all of us. Cal and Aron are primary demonstrations of this good versus evil idea, as they are fighting for their father’s affections, which is a paralleled allegory of the biblical tale. However, it is also applicable to the 1950s when the film was created, and can be further adapted to fit modern society, which is why East of Eden is a timeless film.
Dean’s character Cal exhibits a multitude of self-destructive behavior. As a traditional rebellious character, Dean exhibits free will and the capacity to forgive even though he begrudges his father and brother throughout the diegetic. Cal is embittered with the idea that his father favors Aron, his “perfect” twin brother. Further, Cal attempts to win his father’s undying affection by farming beans and selling them for a large profit. If Cal shows his father that he can create a successful business and repay him monies lost, he would be showered with the affection he feels deprived from.
Cal’s plan backfires and instead resorts to “killing” his brother by destroying his integrity in order to gain his father’s affection and adoration. However, this plan fails and ultimately causes his father’s demise. The theme of reconciliation appears in East of Eden when Dean offers to take care of his invalid father shows his father that his intentions, while misguided, were pure and only used as a guise for his father to notice all his hard work. Dean’s concern with masculinity and manhood is at the forefront of Rebel Without a Cause.
Dean exhibits “moral and psychological vertigo as he teeters on the brink of manhood” , and is concerned with masculinity as there has been an apparent lacking representation of manhood within his home life. Dean is searching for a strong and upright male figure with whom he can identify with, which was a customary representation during the 1950s. Instead of being a strong role model, Dean’s father portrayed as a craven subordinate who succumbs to the over-demanding ways of his boisterous wife.
For a struggling teen, these ideals prove to be less than appropriate, which launches Dean into rebellion, in hopes of finding the role model he desperately needs and desires. In the absence of a credible adult guidance, especially from his father, Dean questions his masculinity. Furthermore, Dean equates manhood with honor. This theme of masculinity and honor is present in both Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden. In Rebel Without a Cause Dean plays the role of the informer, which is an honorable characteristic .
Informing is construed as the highest act of courage, and displays a defining moral choice. Having this moral compass helps to shape and define the man that Dean will turn in to, which is a dependable figure as he attempts to salvage Pluto’s insanity and Judy’s insecurities. Dean screen persona is concerned with not only preserving his honor, but also with surviving and thriving in a world that embodies teenage confusion. Ultimately, Dean’s reconciliation with hegemony makes a rebel honorable, possible by the virtue of its own authority and “unimpaired by psychosis, alienation, or a romanticized futility”.
While Dean is a rebel within East of Eden by defying his father’s orders, he has honorable characteristics when dealing with his manhood. Integrity and honor are integral parts to Dean’s persona as he attempts to save his father and salvage his well being after an ill-advised investment. The rebel character that became a figure of non-conformity, and rugged individualism became not only a culture but also became a political stance as a way to stray from American hegemony. Ray uses Dean as a dissent of social control, in order to promote the independence that became synonymous with rebellious behavior.
There was a pressure to conform that was thrust upon the young adolescents, who were already facing a confusing time during their formative years. Dean as a ‘rebel’ is espoused as the cause of the protestor and stultified the inherently violent social system. The rebel sparked debate and offered a different perspective that would not have been possible with a completely conformist hegemonic society. In order to stray from a completely hegemonic society, and defy global homogenization, America can turn iconography against itself.
This was a message the Ray attempted to portray by having the rebellious characters fight each other even though ultimately they believed in the same things. Psychological and social issues became prevalent and defined the two types of rebels that were present within Rebel Without a Cause. Firstly, there is the rebel that James Dean personified with displays of reconciliation and reintegration into society; and secondly, there is a character such as Plato who was a clear representation of irreconcilable rebellion.
Dean is able to be readmitted into society as his disaffection was not profound in the first place, and was used as a mechanism of expression and attention in the wake of the absence of a strong father. Additionally, Dean’s rebelliousness was sentimentalized, which furthered his reintegration. On the other hand, irreconcilable rebellion is equated to insanity, which cannot be accommodated in society, thusly forcing Plato’s death and the end of the film. While psychological issues can be discusses and presented within a film, insanity is not accepted during the 1950s, so to respond to this, it is imperative for Plato to die.
With the death of Plato and the re-integration of Dean’s character, there is a theme of rehabilitation. Moreover, “once the abyss of personal isolation is bridged, rebelliousness ceases” and those who cannot experience rehabilitations have no place within the film diegetic. This was seen with Plato who was shot down, and Buzz who died during the “chicken run” he challenged Dean to. Kazan’s representation of the rebellious character in East of Eden was seen as a function of a lack of love and meaningful contact, which is why Cal’s forbidden relationship with Abra became central within the narrative.
Dean’s screen persona is searching for the “authentic self” and his masculine identity, which leads him to his mother as well as his reliance on Abra. Further, Abra is the catalyst for the reconciliations between Cal and his father as she promotes the loving relationship the Cal lacks with his father. East of Eden deals with moral values in a generation where teenagers begin to question their father’s generation. Abra became a representation of purity and simplicity that helped bridge the tumultuous relationship between father and son during the period of intense personal moral dilemma for the teenage rebel.
All in all, “the young rebel character that is firmly ingrained in our cultural imagination carries its traces to the Hollywood screen rebels of the fifties, none more than James Dean” . Both Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden are dealing with the protagonist’s movement into moral orientation and their journey into self-identification, and present themselves as remedial, therapeutic, and redemptive, which explain symptoms with implied cures.
Over the decades the rebel has been a particularly ambiguous icon, where the meanings often contradict one another; however, the use of James Dean as an iconoclastic rebel defined term and created the archetypal ‘rebel’ character. During the 1950s, every aspect of emerging teen culture was viewed as threatening and incomprehensible; however, the rebel character was used for teens to expand their personal boundaries during a time when the cultural landscape was largely undefined.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 26 October 2016
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