James Dean as Jim Stark in "Rebel Without a Cause"
The 1950s were a very cool time, I only wish I could have experienced them for myself. It is a time in American pop culture that is highly idealized for it’s music, fashion, style and culture. Everyone looked incredible, and seemed so squeaky clean– but you just knew there had to be much more going on behind the scenes. Rebel Without a Cause is one of the most iconic films from that era, and the stories behind the making of the James Dean classic are as incredible as the movie itself. And truth be told, Dean was not the only rebel on the set. Nicholas Ray, Dennis Hopper, Nick Adams and Natalie Wood definitely held there own. There is a great article from the Vanity Fair archives that is definitely required reading if you’re a fan of the film. They get into some of the details about the Rebel wardrobe and off-screen shenanigans that I have excerpted and added to–
Natalie Wood, James Dean, and Nick Ray
Striving for authenticity in every detail, Ray turned his attention to the high-school gang members who surround and threaten Jim Stark. One of the actors he interviewed was Frank Mazzola, the leader of a real gang called the Athenians. Mazzola had been weeded out by the casting director but muscled his way in to see Ray anyway. “They thought that because I was in a gang, I might create problems on the set. I came out of the Depression, really,” Mazzola explains in a West Hollywood restaurant, his hair, still jet black, tied back in a ponytail. “We didn’t have any pop culture. The guys that we loved flew, like my uncle, a pilot in the Second World War. Everybody I knew wanted to grow up and fly P-38s.… And so these clubs started forming—ours was called the Athenians. We defended our turf. You’d probably get in two or three fights a night just defending Hollywood. It was like a sport.”
James Dean and Natalie Wood on the set of "Rebel Without a Cause"
Ray not only cast Mazzola, he gave him an office on the Warner lot, from which he could serve as technical adviser on gang behavior. Ray instructed him to hang out with Dean and take him to meetings of the Athenians. “I want you to get us the cars, tell us what kind of clothes we should be wearing,” Ray told him. Mazzola had the wardrobe department buy the gang’s clothes at Matson’s, on Hollywood Boulevard, where the Athenians bought their club jackets. The wardrobe department then soiled and laundered more than 400 pairs of Levi 501s for the cast. –I would love to get my hands on those old selvedge jeans.
The iconic Baracuta jacket is often credited as the famous red jacket in Rebel Without a Cause -- but some say it was a McGregor or fabricated by the film’s costume designer Moss Mabry, as he himself claims. There are accounts from staffers that it was bought at Matson’s men’s store for use in the 1955 film, but costume designer Moss Mabry has insisted all along that he made three of the jackets from a bolt of red nylon, and painstakingly worked on the size of the collar and the placement of the pockets. “Even though the jacket looked simple,” Mabry said, “it wasn’t.” Mabry even designed a special bra for Natalie Wood for the film Rebel, which became known as the “Natalie Wood bra,” though he declined to reveal the secret of its design.
Dennis Hopper and Nick Ray many years after "Rebel Without a Cause"
Natalie Wood, who was only 16 at the time, soon became involved with director Nicholas Ray. Wood’s affair with Ray awakened her sexuality—and emboldened her to initiate another love affair, this one with Dennis Hopper, who had been cast as Goon. “I was astonished,” Hopper later said. “I came from a very conventional, middle-class family in San Diego … and this was the 1950s, when girls who’d turned sixteen only a few months earlier just didn’t do things like that.” The sexually charged situation created ill will between Ray and Hopper. Maria Gurdin, having found out about both affairs, complained to Warner Bros. that Hopper was involved with her daughter; ever ambitious for Natalie, she didn’t mention that Ray was as well. “I was furious with [Nick Ray],” Hopper said about the incident. “The studio came down on me, and he came out of it as pure as snow.” The two ran into each other years later at a Grateful Dead concert and buried the hatchet. Hopper went as far as to help the grizzled Ray get back on his feet, and even helped him land a job teaching film students at Binghamton University. Nicholas Ray is a fascinating character and some of the details of his life are pretty heavy stuff– read the Vanity Fair article and find out more.
James Dean and Sal Mineo
Sal Mineo—so affecting as the essentially fatherless outcast Plato—later commented that he had portrayed the first gay teenager on film. There are little clues: the photograph of Alan Ladd taped to his locker door, his longing looks at Jim Stark, his disguised declaration of love in the abandoned mansion. Ray was aware of Dean’s bisexuality and encouraged the actor to use it in certain scenes. Dean instructed Mineo, “Look at me the way I look at Natalie,” for their intimate scene in the Getty mansion. It had to be subtle. A Production Code officer had written in a memo to Jack L. Warner on March 22, “It is of course vital that there be no inference of a questionable or homosexual relationship between Plato and Jim.” In real life Mineo was gay, and it is even rumored that he and Ray (who was bisexual) also had a tryst while filming Rebel.
Dennis Hopper and James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause"
The real life drama behind "Rebel Without a Cause" is still a riddle wrapped in mystery. James Dean's fatal car crash one month before the film's release resulted in the beginning of the "Rebel death curse" theories, which were further fueled when Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and Nick Adams also suffered eerie, premature deaths. There's still plenty of talk and speculation about who actually slept with whom -- and the controversy that clouds the issue of who was the true voice behind "Rebel Without a Cause" — Nicholas Ray or James Dean?