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Ray, Nicholas (1911-1979)  
 
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As Jim Stark, Dean defied prevalent hetero/homosexual stereotypes of the 1950s. Commentators still have difficulty classifying his performance in terms of binary sexual and gender categories. While Dean often conveys a gentleness and grace that challenged dominant conceptions of masculinity in the 1950s, he also manifests the strength expected of men of the period. In her provocative analysis of the movie, Cartier proposes that Dean modeled his performance on the butch lesbians that he knew. Although controversial, this suggestion is of interest because it attests to Dean's ability to reach outside masculine conventions of his era.

The emotional core of the film is provided by the evolving triangular relationship of Jim with two other students at his new high school: Plato (Sal Mineo) and Judy (Natalie Wood). Jim first encounters them at the police station in the opening scene of the film, and, from the start, he behaves very protectively towards both of them, trying to put his jacket around Plato, who is shivering, and picking up the compact that Judy drops.

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In befriending Plato, Jim reveals bravery and sensitivity, as Judy emphasizes in conversation with Jim. Stigmatized as different, Plato is harassed by most of his fellow students. Although never explicitly stated, it is apparent that Plato is homosexual, particularly since Mineo as Plato manifests many of the distinctive features of the sissy stereotype, which was popularly associated with homosexual men in the 1950s.

According to Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel, memos from worried Warner executives indicate that Ray wanted to show Plato kissing Jim. Although Ray did not film this scene, he included many clues to Plato's sexuality, including the picture of Tyrone Power in his locker and his nickname after the ancient Greek philosopher (queerly resonant because of the historic association of homosexuality with Classical culture).

Although mainstream critics continue to describe Jim's relation to Plato as being simply that of father to son, this interpretation is undercut by the sensual longing with which Plato/Mineo gazes at Jim/Dean. The homoerotic basis of Plato's attraction to Jim is evident, for example, as he intently follows Jim's movement in the reflection in the mirror placed above Power's photo. Eagerly leaning toward Jim during the lecture at the planetarium, Plato touches his shoulder tenderly. Although Jim's feelings for Plato are more ambiguous, he always responds to him with gentleness and warmth, even when he declines Plato's invitation to spend the night at his house. The soft focus and gentle music marks Plato's invitation to Jim as romantic.

Although Plato and Judy are often characterized as competitors for Jim's affections, they do not treat each other with hostility and, in fact, they seem to take pleasure in their shared feelings for him, as is particularly evident in their conversation preceding the chickie run. The possibility of an alternate family structure is evoked in a powerfully romantic interlude, set in a dilapidated mansion, where all three have taken refuge from gang members seeking vengeance for the death of their leader, Buzz, in the chickie run. In the gazebo, Plato lies against Jim's shoulder as Judy supports Jim's head in her lap.

Plato's death at the end of the movie is often interpreted as the triumph of heterosexuality over homosexuality. Yet, Jim conveys the impression that he will continue to cherish Plato's memory as he sorrowfully and tenderly bends towards his dead body and zips up the red jacket that he gave him earlier.

Perhaps because of the publicity surrounding Dean's starring role in the film, which was released shortly after his death, Rebel was one of the highest grossing films of the decade, and it was also the most commercially successful film of Ray's entire career.

Rebel is also arguably Ray's artistic masterpiece. In addition to powerful performances by all members of the cast, the film is distinguished by the director's dynamic exploitation of the new color Cinemascope technology and the modernistic jazz score by Leonard Rosenman, among other elements.

Films of the Later 1950s

After achieving an exceptional degree of success with Rebel, Ray certainly had good reason to expect that he would be able to attain the artistic independence he had long sought. However, his ambitions continued to be limited by budgetary constraints, the unwelcome involvement of executives in his films, and other factors. Ray's own destructive behavior also interfered with his professional effectiveness. During the later 1950s, he began to drink even more heavily, and he squandered much of his money through gambling.

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