Rebel without a cause: America’s queer classic


Publicity still of James Dean from Rebel Without A Cause

Kai Kyzar, Columnist

In the time where strict rules prohibited film from showing a married couple sharing a bed or facing the risk of insinuating sexual activities, finding queer representation sounds impossible. American film director Nicholas Ray crafted the emotional love story “Rebel Without A Cause” and gave us the character John “Plato” Crawford who is debated to be the first gay teenager in film.

The film begins with James Dean’s character Jim Stark being arrested for public intoxication and brought into the police station to wait for his parents. Here is where we meet the two other teens of the iconic trio Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo). 

Before being called in to talk to officer Ray Fremick, Jim tries to give his jacket to a shivering Plato who refuses the offer, waving Jim away and curling tighter into himself. This scene is directly referenced at the very end of the film where Jim gives his jacket to Plato in a comforting gesture while he is attempting to persuade Plato to give up his gun and surrender to the police.

CWU professor Jason Tucholke calls the scene a “telling moment”, and goes on to say “I think that moment in particular, really strikes me as the moment where you wonder if, if it’s a little more than just looking up to a mentor or, you know, role model.”

“That moment in particular, I think really strikes me at least as something.” said Tucholke. 

After accepting Jim’s jacket, Plato not only tenderly cradles it, but even holds it up to his face and sniffs it. At the end of the film after Plato is wrongfully murdered by the police, Dean’s character Jim is hysterical and inconsolable, sobbing and crawling on the ground. While Woods’ character Judy is upset but silent, Jim is wailing.

But no homo right? Wrong!

According to Esquire magazine, Dean and Mineo purposefully played into the attraction between Jim and Plato. Anyone who has seen the movie would have to jump through hoops to attribute the deep and longing looks shared between the co-stars as anything other than homoerotic.

Looking further into the personal lives of both Dean and Mineo gives ample evidence to their real-life queer identities. In an interview with Boze Hadleigh, Mineo says he does not resent the rumors of his bisexuality–which he later confirms–and says “what’s wrong with being bi? Maybe most people are, deep down.”

A famous quote from Dean, one I’ve found nearly everywhere I’ve looked for more information on Dean’s short life including in Esquire magazine, reads: “I’m not a homosexual, but I’m not going through life with one hand tied behind my back.”

These quotes—along with the obvious romantic and sexual tension between the characters Jim and Plato—point to a not so subtle queer-coding in the film “Rebel Without A Cause”. If you haven’t already, I cannot recommend the film enough and I implore you to watch it yourself. As a not only queer classic, but one of films in general, “Rebel Without A Cause” (and James Dean’s pretty face) is not something to miss.

“Rebel Without A Cause” can be streamed through HBO Max.