This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
"You're tearing me apart! You say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again."
James Dean shouts these words in an anguished howl that seems to owe more to acting class than to his character, the rebellious and causeless Jim Stark in "Rebel Without a Cause." Because he died in a car crash a month before the movie opened in 1955, the performance took on an eerie kind of fame: It was the posthumous complaint of an actor widely expected to have a long and famous career. Only "East of Eden" (1954) was released while Dean was alive; "Giant," his last film, came out in 1956. And then the legend took over.
The film has not aged well, and Dean's performance seems more like marked-down Brando than the birth of an important talent. But "Rebel Without a Cause" was enormously influential at the time, a milestone in the creation of new idea about young people. Marlon Brando as a surly motorcycle gang leader in "The Wild One" (1953), James Dean in 1955, and the emergence of Elvis Presley in 1956: These three role models decisively altered the way young men could be seen in popular culture. They could be more feminine, sexier, more confused, more ambiguous.
"What can you do when you have to be a man?" Jim Stark asks his father, the emasculated Frank Stark (Jim Backus). But his father doesn't know, and in one grotesque scene, wears a frilly apron over his business suit while cleaning up spilled food. Jim comes from a household ruled by his overbearing mother (Ann Doran) and her mother (Virginia Brissac). Early in the film, he regards his father and tells a juvenile officer: "If he had guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she'd be happy, and she'd stop picking on him."