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

by David Cornelius

“Rebel Without a Cause” is not only one of the best films ever made, it’s also one of the most influential. The movie helped usher in the era of the teenager. It played a major role in the birth of a “new Hollywood,” where young stars hip to method acting confused their older counterparts. It proved to studios that you can make a quality film out of exploitative fare, if given the space to grow. And above all, it gave birth to the Cult of James Dean. Without “Rebel,” Dean would have only been just another movie star, one that died all too young. With it, however, Dean became an icon, a legend on par with Elvis and Marilyn. And with that standing, the making of “Rebel” would take on legendary proportions.

Over the decades, the history of “Rebel” has been told and retold with frantic glee, and now, authors Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel have set out to offer the definitive version of how the film came to be. “Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making ‘Rebel Without a Cause’” does exactly what it sets out to do, providing so much detail that even the most diehard “Rebel” fanatic will most certainly find something new.

Detail is the name of the game in Frascella and Weisel’s book. In addition to a near minute-by-minute account of the film’s production, we’re also given in-depth looks into the histories of its major players. Entire chapters are devoted to, say, the telling of director Nicolas Ray’s pre-“Rebel” career, which may seem excessive on the surface, but keep reading, and you’ll discover how problems with his own son (whom Ray discovered in bed with his new wife, actress Gloria Grahame - Ray and Grahame then divorced, and she would soon marry her former stepson) fueled a desire on Ray’s part to understand modern youth, and, more importantly, win them over.

Curious stories abound as we follow Dean’s skyrocket rise to success; Natalie Wood’s attempts to break away from her domineering stage mother and lose her “child star” image; the potentially dangerous casting of Frank Mazzola, an L.A. gang leader and wannabe movie star; Ray’s conflicts with screenwriter Stewart Stern, whose script became mangled during Ray’s efforts to introduce improvisation to the shooting; etc. And, of course, no book about “Rebel” would be complete without its juicy recounts of Wood’s simultaneous affairs with her director and her co-star, a young Dennis Hopper (who would later be all but written out of the film due to Ray’s jealousies).

(One complaint: the structure of the book, which follows one player’s tale, then another’s, and another’s, and so on, does create a bit of redundancy as stories overlap. As if to cement key moments in the reader’s mind, a few facts are repeated when they don’t need to be. An acknowledgement of this repetition from the authors would have been nice, but considering the structure works best this way, the reiterations become a forgivable nuisance.)

Throughout, the film and its backstory is always treated with reverence, but not an overbearing one. This is a breezy, friendly read, eager to entertain, caught up in the red hot frenzy of a good Hollywood yarn. And when you come to phrases like “Chapter Eight: The Red Jacket,” you sense a deep admiration for the iconography of the film (fans of the movie will give those five words a great weight, knowing the importance of what is to follow) mixed with a bit of lighthearted attitude (we’re here to marvel at the movie, but we’re not about to get too serious about it).

Better still, the authors are unafraid to tackle head on the sexualities of all involved. And not, thankfully, in a lurid manner, either. This is a book that hopes to set the record straight (no pun intended) on the rumors regarding Dean’s bisexuality (short answer: he was), to separate as best as possible the facts from the fiction. But Frascella and Weisel do not do this merely for the sake of calling people out on their orientation; they find great fascination in how the sexuality of all involved helped develop important relationships. There are connections in this story that are more than who worked with whom. Deep bonds are formed during the making of this movie, and sexual, romantic, and even platonic attraction are found at the core, driving almost everyone featured. You can’t tell the story of “Rebel” without being honest about the sex lives of all involved, and kudos to the authors for being so honest without being judgmental, or even gossipy.

Complimenting this wise restraint and understanding is reporting that can only be described as remarkable. Frascella and Weisel managed to get new interviews with pretty much every surviving major player, while the ones that are no longer with us find voice in archival interviews and press clippings. We’re granted all-new recollections, and it’s obvious everyone involved is delighted to revisit a bright spot from their past. You can almost hear Hopper’s voice as he gleefully tells of his skirmishes with Ray.

More importantly, however, “Live Fast” isn’t just a straight-up report of the movie’s making - for that, you can always just pop a making-of documentary into your DVD player. No, Frascella and Weisel chose to include serious film criticism into their work, with detailed examinations of the movie’s key scenes providing the best analysis of the film I’ve yet read. Care to know why a brief exchange between the Jim and Plato characters are so important? Or how carefully constructed the planetarium scene was, the final edit producing subconscious foreshadowing? Perhaps you’re interested in the subtle (and, in some scenes, not-so-subtle) homoerotic aspects, and how they play with and against the subtle (and, in some scenes, not-so-subtle) sense of “new family” that’s formed between the Jim, Plato, and Judy? The careful camera play that Ray creates in order to craft a “heightened reality,” one that works with the portrayals of the adults in the film? It’s all here and more. The authors are so concise with their analysis that every chapter left me hungry to rewatch “Rebel” to see what I’ve obviously missed before.

The book’s only major distraction comes when the story of the film itself is over. Frascella and Weisel, eager to offer the most complete story possible, spend too long detailing the post-“Rebel” careers of the four major players. These are remarkable stories, true, but by this point in the book, we should be examining the film’s legacy (which we finally get in the last chapter, although the best description of it comes in Mineo’s story, in which he gets stuck in a series of “Rebel” knock-offs, showcasing Hollywood’s ultimate lack of imagination). Due to their length, the biographical end chapters don’t quite fit as well as they could.

But by this point, you’ll be so wrapped up in the lives of these players that I don’t think you’ll mind too much. As Hollywood legends go, the making of “Rebel” is one for the ages, and “Live Fast” manages to collect all the facts, question all the urban legends, separate the history from the mythology, all while celebrating a genuine film classic. “Rebel” fans take note: a masterpiece of cinema just got richer.

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originally posted: 11/03/05 09:59:58
last updated: 01/06/06 13:33:18
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