The Oscars are almost as famous for the films they ignore as the ones they honor. And 2006 marks the 50th anniversary of a major oversight: Rebel Without a Cause was one of the most important movies of its time, but Academy voters didn’t seem to have a clue. In a year of sturdy but humble competition such as Marty — the ultimate winner — and bloated contenders like Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, the seminal teen film failed to earn a Best Picture nod. The movie did garner three nominations — for Natalie Wood (Best Supporting Actress), Sal Mineo (Best Supporting Actor), and director Nicholas Ray (in the defunct category of Best Story). But none of them would win. And while James Dean made the list of Best Actors, he was nominated for East of Eden, a far more deliberate drama than Rebel and one that definitely lacked its searing, icon-making resonance.
Still, Rebel would go on to have a seismic effect on both popular and youth culture for decades. It would kick off the James Dean cult, and in many ways it would define our concept of ”the teenager.” From the start, director Nick Ray wanted Rebel to be the first film to look at America from the adolescent point of view. And after much tribulation, he succeeded. To this day, the movie embodies the passion, confusion, and heartbreak of youth.
The making of Rebel is drenched in myths — some fact, some fiction. Of course, there’s the fact of Dean’s fatal car crash one month before the film’s release, and the resulting Rebel curse, given further credence when Wood and Mineo also suffered premature deaths. Scandal continues to swirl around the question of who slept with whom. And a nagging controversy haunts the issue of credit: Who ultimately shaped Rebel — Nicholas Ray or James Dean?
My writing partner Al Weisel and I — lifelong fans of the film — decided that 50 years of half-told tales and innuendo were enough.
For our new book, Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause, we spoke to nearly every Rebel veteran — from the surviving actors to the car customizer to the on-set tutor. Here are some of the most fascinating things we learned to be true.
1 The 43-year-old director sleeps with his teenage star Sixteen-year-old Natalie Wood was desperate to make the transition from child star to serious actress. She campaigned relentlessly for the role of Judy, rarely missing a chance to put herself in Nick Ray’s path — and eventually he responded. After a not-so-accidental meeting in the Warner Bros. cafeteria, Ray asked her on a date, and they began their potentially career-toppling, top secret affair. But the director continued to deny her the role in Rebel: He felt she was too ”Hollywood.” Meanwhile, that’s precisely what Warner execs wanted: They were pushing for MGM musical star Debbie Reynolds and offered Tab Hunter as a replacement for Dean.
Ironically, thanks to Wood, Ray began to envision Judy less as a trashy teen and more as a confused, hurting kid like the actress herself. Late one rainy night in early 1955, Wood, who’d been out drinking, survived a head-on collision on L.A.’s twisty Laurel Canyon Boulevard. The crash ensured her credentials as a potential delinquent, and Wood landed the part, but only after Ray had conducted a Vertigo-like transformation of his young star, which included speech and walking lessons, padded hips, and a special push-up brassiere — still known, in the annals of Hollywood undergarments, as the ”Natalie Wood bra.”