Over the course of the second half of the 20th century ,an entire cottage industry sprung up around sticking James Dean’s face on things and selling them. Shirts, posters, coffee mugs, license plates, postage stamps, what have you, they’ve all been sold to James Dean fans. And a lot of the imagery stuck on them comes from Dean’s penultimate film Rebel Without a Cause, which was released just a month after the star’s infamous death. Dean’s portrayal of the angry young man in this film has become iconic, prototypical, and is just about as much of a part of pop culture as the actor himself. After he died, his performance in Rebel got elevated up to a mythic standard, it became something that symbolized not just one of Hollywood’s preeminent figures, but an entire generation of disenfranchised youth.
Eight years after Rebel Without a Cause exploded onto the screen in full color and became a cultural phenomenon, another movie about a rebellious young man was released. This one was shot in black and white and looked more like a classic Western than it did a modern, youth-centric tale of teenage rebellion. The film was called Hud, and instead of James Dean it starred Paul Newman as a guy who would rather get drunk and throw a punch than put in a day’s work. Who would rather sleep with a man’s wife than support a family of his own. Who would rather sell a contract for the oil on his family’s land than run a cattle ranch. This tale of generational strife is, in my opinion, superior to Rebel Without a Cause in nearly every way, but it doesn’t even have one tenth of its fame. The reason for that is up for debate, but I think it’s got something to do with the long, full life that Newman lived after its release.
What do they have in common?
Both Dean’s Jim and Newman’s Hud are struggling to figure out what it means to be a man and how to fit into a changing world. They both see their childhood images of masculinity changing, and they find themselves raging against the new models for manhood being set up. Jim sees his father as henpecked, and it has given him a preoccupation with cowardice. Hud sees his father as an old fogy, an idealist who refuses to change with the times and is content to watch the world pass him by. His preoccupation with not being like his father has led to him being selfish and cutthroat, and it brings him into conflict with the old guard. Each of these characters have young children looking up to them in their own search for masculine ideals as well. For Jim it’s the troubled Plato, who we first meet killing puppies, and for Hud it’s his nephew Lon, who looks up to Hud’s glamorous, hard-partying life.
Why is Rebel Without a Cause overrated?
My confusion with Rebel Without a Cause started almost immediately, because James Dean looks like a 40-year-old man, but his parents treat him like a 12-year-old-boy. Even if you accept the fact the the 24-year-old Dean is really supposed to be 16, and just looks older because he’s dressed up in sport coats and slacks, it still doesn’t explain the way he relates to his parents. They don’t seem to be all that concerned that he has a drinking problem, and yet they send him off to his first day of school holding a sack lunch and a thermos. In another scene Jim’s new lady friend (Natalie Wood) is upset because her father won’t kiss her on the mouth anymore. We’re supposed to think he’s a jerk because he says she’s too old, and then he slaps her face when she presses the issue. What the hell? I can’t quite explain all of the weird stuff going on with people’s varying ages in this movie and the way they behave around each other because of them, but suffice to say, this movie looks dated and weird.
The other big problem with watching this one with modern eyes is all of the ridiculous melodrama. Dean’s performance is astoundingly over the top. He’s chewing scenery every second he’s on screen. His parents try to have simple conversations with him and he starts screaming for seemingly no reason. You begin to wonder if he’s mentally handicapped or just emotionally disturbed. And the bullies at school are comically evil. Instead of doling out wedgies and wet willies they try to slash the new kid with switch blades and drive him off the edge of a cliff. After multiple attempts on his life, instead of going to the police, Jim decides to just sulk in his bedroom. Then he snaps and screams after his dad drops a tray of food. Rebel Without a Cause has a lot in common with teenagers; it’s all aimless raging and uncontrolled emotion, and trying to apply logic to it will get you nowhere.
And if you think Dean’s character is unlikable, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve dealt with Sal Mineo’s Plato. Most of the pointed morality and the clunky dialogue comes from him, and it gets so bad that whenever he spoke I wanted to reach into the screen and strangle him. We’re supposed to catch on to the fact that Plato is seeing Jim as a replacement father figure, so the script has him yell lines like, “We can have breakfast like me and my dad used to! If only you could be my dad!” How on-the-nose can dialogue get? I’ve never seen a movie that spent so much time explaining to me all of its subtext and themes, but which still left me so confused as to what it wanted to say. Rebel was losing me fast in its first half, when all of the focus was on Dean, but for the last bit of this film, when the focus was more heavily on Mineo, I downright wanted to harm myself.
Why is Hud underpraised?
Hud isn’t confused and strange, he’s just a bad person, and we need to study him to figure out why. This movie trades confused characterization for complex characterization. There’s a dead mother in the picture and her absence seems to have left a hole in the middle of everyone. Hud and his father clearly have an affection for one another, but they don’t understand each other, they don’t know how to communicate, and they find themselves constantly at odds. Because they’re both proud men who keep things bottled up, it becomes our job to peel their layers back and figure out what the source of the rift between them is. And it becomes the job of the actors to let us know what their characters are feeling, because there isn’t any clunky dialogue to spell it all out.
Over the course of the film, Hud does things that we don’t agree with, he makes choices that paint him as unlikable, but because of Newman’s performance and the quality of the script we never give up on rooting for him. The more we understand his past, the more we understand his present. And when he squints his eyes and says something non-committal like, “Nobody gets out of life alive,” suddenly it takes on volumes of meaning. We want him to grow and change, but as things progress it starts to look like betting on Hud might be a doomed prospect. He might be too set in his ways, his environment may be too limiting for growth. And this just feeds his anger further. Rather than playing a confused youth who is lashing out for no reason, Newman creates a character struggling against constraints. He’s a rebel, but with a very specific cause.
Newman isn’t the only great actor in this either. Patricia Neal is charming, tragic, and memorable as the housekeeper Alma, a character who could have come off as a generic maternal figure or a victim in other hands, but who hints at untold complexities in Neal’s. I couldn’t imagine watching this movie and not relating to her completely. And Melvyn Douglas is heartbreaking as Hud’s dad, a man who has some real wisdom and perspective, but who can’t get through to his troubled son for the life of him. The tension between Hud and his father builds and builds over the course of the film, and eventually it crescendos in a climactic moment that doesn’t involve a confrontation between the two directly, but that still manages to be one of the most brutal, bleak film climaxes I’ve ever seen. Hud is affecting, ahead of its time, and skilled in every aspect of its execution. It boggles my mind that nobody has ever recommended it to me and I had to randomly stumble across it one night on cable.
Evening the odds.
A lot of people may argue that Rebel Without a Cause is worth watching as a time capsule of a potential career that never got the chance to blossom. Or even that there hasn’t been a male celebrity more beautiful and perfect than Dean since his untimely death, and this movie will always be the way that we remember him; young, raw, and alive. But I would argue that Newman in his prime is every bit as dreamy as James Dean was. People can have their James Dean velvet tapestries, I’ll take a button with Newman’s face on it.