Rebel Without a Cause’s Jim Stark is a film character as iconic as his portrayer James Dean. Both Dean and Stark spoke to–and on behalf of–an entire generation of disgruntled youth in the mid-1950s. The character represented the miserable experience of growing up in a backwards world. Consequently, the actor became the face of the new wave of teenage rebellion. Just as every generation needs an icon, so the icon needs an indubitable symbol—something that immediately identifies both the icon and the movement they support. This symbol is consequently linked to the identity of the character. In the case of Rebel’s Jim Stark, this symbol is a conspicuous red jacket.
Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, like Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, is a classic film that features an actor who, along with Rebel’s James Dean, would become one of cinema’s most legendary figures: Marlon Brando. An even more remarkable trait these films share is two legendary characters: Jim Stark (Rebel) and Terry Malloy (Waterfront). We have already explored Stark; let us now focus on Brando’s Terry Malloy. Terry, an ex-boxer-turned-longshoreman who has become involved in the local waterfront mafia, evolves from a lonely bum to a coveted leader by the end of the film. The interaction between Terry’s style and his character’s development is meticulously catalogued at various points in the film.
If Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause is the quintessential teenage rebellion film, Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961) is the quintessential teenage love film. Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty play Deanie Loomis and Bud Stamper, two shining examples of educated teenagers who are growing up in a shifting world. The film centers around their love story: respectable Deanie is literally driven insane by the agonized Bud. Both characters undergo a transformation in terms of discovering their identities: Bud finally grows into the man he always wanted to be, and Deanie eventually becomes the woman society always expected of her. Although both characters embark on a journey of self-discovery in this film, it is Deanie to whom we will direct our attention. As in the previous two films, the costumes and settings play a critical role in not only telling the story of these characters, but also of showing the emotions and motivations behind each character’s passage.