FILM- <i>Rebel</i> rouser: How Stewart Stern wrote a legend
The landmark Rebel Without a Cause canonized James Dean as the patron saint of America's disaffected youth. Dean's death shortly before the film's release further elevated Rebel to sacrosanct status.
But '50s pop icon Jim Stark, Dean's character, sprang from the pen of Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning scenarist Stewart Stern.
Today the 85-year-old Stern says that when he first met "Jimmy" Dean, the actor had a reputation as a "kid who scared everybody to death." But during their first encounter at a mutual friend's house, they bonded in a unique way: by imitating barnyard animals.
"I stunned Jimmy the farm boy with my ‘moo,'" Stern laughs.
Soon the two were "oinking and mooing and crowing at each other for about half an hour." As he became less self-conscious, Dean and Stern became fast friends and social companions. Dean's former roommate, composer Leonard Rosenman, also recommended Stern to Dean. After meeting with director Nicholas Ray, who admired Stern's previous film, Teresa, the writer was in.
The film's troubled juvenile protagonists, like the chronically insecure Jim and Plato (Sal Mineo), were a Freudian dream, each a self-contained psychological case study. While crafting these nuanced characters, Stern became fascinated with Judy (Natalie Wood) and her changing ideas.
"She was learning to talk about love," Stern explains, "learning that you can wait and wait and wait for love, but the point is to love someone. It's easy to love someone– you don't have to wait. And it doesn't mean that the other person has to love you."
Stern also wove his own experiences into the script. Jim's father's (Jim Backus) nickname for him, "Jimbo," was an homage to an "Army buddy," Stern notes. The way Dean, Wood, and Mineo "play" in a deserted mansion was inspired by Stark's childhood memories of exploring a similarly "baronial" Long Island estate.
Dean's poolside imitation of cartoon character Mr. Magoo (whom co-star Jim Backus voiced) arose from an incident in a darkened movie theatre where Stern saw Dean twit Backus with an anonymous Magoo imitation.
A half-century after its initial release, Stern believes that Rebel achieved iconic status because it expressed a generation's pent-up frustrations. It confirmed for youthful audiences, he says, "that they weren't wrong in thinking that their parents were hypocritical, out of touch, disinterested. They were beginning to have this secret life about which they felt pretty guilty and pretty rebellious, and they were trying to provoke interest on the part of their parents in them– in who they were, in who they were trying to be.
"I think that it said, consciously or unconsciously, what kids were waiting to hear."
Stewart Stern will present a shot-by-shot breakdown of Rebel Without a Cause at 1pm Friday, November 2 at the Regal Downtown.