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Book Review: Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause

When CinemaScope arrived in the early 1950s, it was Hollywood’s effort to create more realistic film making by putting a wider image into a smaller area without significantly reducing the content or quality of the image. Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause takes an analogous approach in examining the making of the iconic film Rebel without a Cause.

Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of James Dean’s death (Sept. 30, 1955) and the film’s premiere (Oct. 27, 1955), Live Fast, Die Young is exhaustive but not exhausting. It takes a tremendously wide view of the film, its personnel and its significance but produces a fairly unified whole. It is so in-depth that the story of the actual shooting of the film does not begin until 100 pages into the work. This is far from wasted time or space, however.

Film and theatre critic Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel, a regular contributor to Premier magazine, use interviews with virtually every surviving member of the cast and crew and review of thousands of documents in drafting this extensively noted and bibliographed work. Yet their style does not reduce this some sort of dry film study or dissertation on film theory. In fact, there’s plenty of gossip to go around. There’s talk of 16-year-old star Natalie Wood’s affair with 43-year old director Nicholas Ray. There’s discussion of the sexual affair between Ray’s teenage son and his wife, the boy’s stepmother, and its impact on the making of the film. There’s discussion of the homoerotic purpose and nature of Sal Mineo both in private and in his film role. And, of course, there’s plenty of discussion of James Dean, his role in the making of the film and the red jacket that became part of film lore. Yet Frascella and Weisel are to be complimented for not focusing exclusively on Dean or making it a homage to him. Instead, they take that wider view and put the big picture on the pages.

The authors start with Ray’s intent to make a realistic movie about teens and their lives at a time when juvenile delinquency is a hot topic in America. We are taken through the struggle to turn that basic idea into a script, which includes efforts by such writers as Leon Uris, who would go on to write such bestsellers as Exodus. Yet even when the last scriptwriter, Stewart Stern, turned in his final draft at about the same time initial shooting began, that was not the end of story development. Ray’s directorial style and Dean’s method acting technique both lent themselves to improvisation so the ultimate film did not necessarily reflect Stern’s script. Stern was gone during filming and shocked by some of the changes that were made. Additionally, although filming began in black and white, studio mogul Jack Warner mandated just days after shooting started that it be filmed in CinemaScope.

Perhaps more fascinating to the average reader is the cast selection process. Ray felt Dean was a natural for the lead role of Jim Stark. Yet even up to the day Dean was to show up for filming, it wasn’t certain he would actually participate in the film. Wood lobbied heavily for her role as the female lead, Judy, and even despite her affair with Ray, it wasn’t clear she would get the role. Ray looked for actual teenagers who fit the mold to play roles in the larger gang cast. And despite numerous auditions by a variety of actors, Ray did not come upon Mineo for the key role of Plato until Mineo happened to show up at a late casting call for two minor gang member roles. The authors explore in detail the significance of both Mineo and his role in opening the door to on screen depictions of homosexuals, especially remarkable in light of the strict controls film censors attempted to exercise on the film

Jut as Live Fast, Die Young take us through the casting, it closely examines the trials and tribulations of actual filming and the rush to complete it under studio pressure to get Dean started on his next (and last) film, Giant. The balance of the book looks at Dean’s death less than a month before the film’s premiere. It examines the impact on Ray and other members of the cast and the “curse” of the film in the subsequent early deaths of co-stars Wood and Mineo. We also see how the images of both Dean and the film became inseparable. As the authors note:

Dean and the role he played in Rebel became immediately indistinguishable. His performance and his death may have been the engines that initially drove Rebel deep into the culture, but without Rebel, Dean would not have become an icon.

This is just one example of Frascella’s and Weisel’s efforts to place Rebel Without a Cause in its societal and film context. Throughout the work they explore the significance of various film making decisions and scenes in the film in the greater whole and why the film became an exemplar of and for alienated youth. This is necessary to fully and adequately explore a film that would be named as one of the Top 100 Films of all time by the American Film Institute and which was among the first 50 films added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Like CinemaScope itself, Live Fast, Die Young may at times be too big for itself, occasionally waxing too majestically about aspects and impacts of this time-honored film. The flaws in CinemaScope ultimately meant it did not save Hollywood from the upstart known as television. History has demonstrated, though, that Rebel Without a Cause would stand the test of time. Live Fast, Die Young is a worthy exploration of why and stands as an worthy, if not perhaps definitive, examination of this cultural icon.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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