Following hard upon the heels of East of Eden, which hit movie theaters six months earlier, the release of Rebel Without a Cause in late 1955 is arguably the cinematic centerpiece of the legend that became James Dean. Nicholas Ray and his cast of young stars created one of those rare movies that instantly transcended the medium to become a cultural touchstone by which many of younger generation who flocked to see it would mark route to maturity.
Part of the mythic aura that surrounded the film even before it was ever shown in theaters can be attributed to the shocking death of its star almost exactly one month before its release. Already a superstar due to his Oscar-nominated performance from seemingly nowhere in East of Eden, James Dean was enjoying the fruits of that success on September 30, 1955 by taking his brand Porsche Spyder out for a thrill ride. The head-on collision that resulted in his death at age 24 transported him into another realm of stardom that can only be enjoyed at the price of premature death.
Another element to the mythic status of Rebel Without a Cause is that Dean was not its only star to meet an infamous end at an early age. Although Dean himself did not receive an Oscar nomination for Rebel Without a Cause, since Academy voters preferred his performance in East of Eden and both movies were released in the same year, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo were both nominated. Mineo would be stabbed to death when he just 37 and Natalie Wood would drown under a cloud of controversial mystery at age 43.
The mythos continues with the legacy of the red windbreaker, blue jeans and white T-shirt worn by Dean’s character. The same outfit is worn by the character of Philip Fry throughout the run of the animated series Futurama as a homage to Dean and the film. That iconic red windbreaker only came about after the decision was made to shoot in color to take advantage of the wide-screen CinemaScope process. This decision was made after several scenes had already been filmed in black-and-white. Those scenes wound up on the cutting room floor. The decision to make Rebel Without a Cause in color also contributed to Dean’s character undergoing a personality change as well as wardrobe makeover: the character was originally conceived as a more scholarly type with glasses and wearing a brown sports jacket.
As filming transitioned to color, Ray and his team took full advantage of the opportunity.The director wanted to make the film’s color pallet more vibrant. He worked closely with costume designer, Moss Mabry to make the actors’ clothes pop onscreen. For example, Dean’s bomber jacket was originally brown, but Mabry removed its shiny finish to make it look more lived in. Then he dipped it in red dye, and the iconic crimson coat was born. The Levi’s 501 jeans Dean and Mineo wore throughout the film also got an extra shot of dye to make their indigo hue appear even richer onscreen.
In addition to the nominations for Wood and Mineo, Nicholas Ray received an Oscar nomination for Best Writing of a Motion Picture a year before that category was retired from the ceremonies.