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Archive for September 9th, 2015

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by Brian E. Wilson

“YOU’RE TEARING ME APART!!!!”

I have seen Rebel Without a Cause several times with an audience and this famous line, yelled with great anger and frustration by James Dean’s misunderstood character Jim Stark at his elders, brings about a wide variety of reactions.  When I saw the movie in a college film studies class in the 1980s, my snarky peers chuckled and laughed at it, later calling Dean’s emotional line delivery campy and over-the-top.  Surprised that this guy presented as the epitome of cool on merchandise such as posters, postcards, and calendars (that still sell well today, along with Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe nostalgia) could be capable of losing his cool so dramatically, many in the class dismissed him.  Also, in the ’80s, I am sure many were also giddy with the fact that Jim Backus (known mostly as Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island) plays Jim’s meek father.  What they didn’t seem to notice is that Backus gives a effective performance in the role, and that Dean plays off him beautifully.

Yet at a packed screening in a revival house in the early ’00s, the “You’re Tearing Me Apart” moment led to a gasp and then stunned silence.  The rawness of the moment still startles.  People attending the screening obviously had the ability to transport themselves back to when this movie was initially released.  In 1955, Jim Stark’s explosion of confusion must have struck a nerve with a generation disillusioned with their parents.  I wrote an essay for this series on Stand by Me (#62) and I was alive when that film came out and could write from experience about what impact that film had at the time of its release.  For Rebel, I wasn’t, so over the years I have listened to and read anecdotes and comments of family members, friends, instructors, critics, and others who caught the film at the time of its release.  Many said it struck a chord and that Jim finally said with deep emotion what many teenagers wanted to say.

Also, at the time of its release (October 27, 1955), Dean’s fans were mourning his very recent death (September 30, 1955).  He died at the age of 24 in a car accident.  He lived to see only one of his films, 1955’s East of Eden with his brilliant Oscar nominated performance, play in theaters.  So watching Dean’s Jim Stark experience emotional turmoil in Rebel must have been painful for his many young fans. (more…)

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