I don’t often praise books right out the gate but you should go out and buy today’s book. Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause is one of the most comprehensive books I’ve read not only detailing the making of a film, but discussing the film’s role in society without being boring or condescending. It’s obvious authors Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel did their homework as there’s they weave in gossip with history and have a lot of research to back it all up. If you’re looking at a Hollywood insider story discussing a cultural phenomenon and/or a bio on the lives of James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, and Nicholas Ray in one book (that’s less than 400 pages) here it is.
From its title it’s easy to derive what the book is about: the making of the seminal 1950s film Rebel Without a Cause. I’ve seen the film twice and while I like it I don’t necessarily love it. After reading Frascella and Weisel’s book I’m rewatching the film and will have a stronger appreciation for the material. The book goes into detail about how powerful this film is in the cultural zeitgeist with a final afterword chapter devoted to its influences in film and television both in the US and abroad. The film is responsible for a wealth of things in our society as it not only made stars of its young cast (Dean, Wood and Mineo) but even the word “teenager” entered the lexicon courtesy of this film.
The book’s main focus is on presenting the uphill battle this film had to take to make it to the screen. Every element of this film is detailed in its own chapter from its original idea, incited by director Nicholas Ray finding his son in bed with his wife, to the script writing process, casting (both the main stars and the gang of teens), even down to costuming of James Deans iconic red jacket. Frascella and Weisel make each section sing with witty stories from cast and crew, never devolving into a series of names and dates. This isn’t a history book but a DVD feature written down and bound.
The strongest elements are in showing how the film excelled due to the connection of its cast. Much of the preproduction process covered in the books pages discusses director Nicholas Ray becoming friends with his cast of young teenagers. The camaraderie that is detailed includes car crashes, parties, and other debauchery with numerous quotes from the now older stars discussing how unique an opportunity this was. For the cast they were never able to recapture the spirit of making this film even though Hollywood placed many of them were placed in cheap rip-offs for other studios.
A Hollywood tell-all like this wouldn’t be complete without gossip and in comparison to other gossip laced books out there, this one doesn’t go too far with the lurid details. There are things I didn’t know including Nicholas Ray’s relationship with a teenage Natalie Wood, the various discussions about Ray’s, James Dean’s, and Mineo’s sexuality, and various accidents that took place on set. Ray himself isn’t always shown in the best light, turning into a teenager with his cast when he felt he was losing his teenage girlfriend. What works here is that numerous actors and sources are interviews and listed (there’s a lengthy bibliography and notes section in the back) so you don’t say “where did they get that information.” The sources cited are cavalier about what they reveal as the main stars of this film are sadly dead, and make sure to mention it was never seen as cheap or tawdry.
Every actor, no matter how small, is given a bit of back story including actors like Corey Allen and Dennis Hopper. After the movie is concluded there’s a heartfelt series of chapters detailing the now infamous fates of the three main stars and their director. The catalyst is the death of James Dean, a death no one in the film got over according to Frascella and Weil. The hardest hit are Sal Mineo and Ray as their chapters are particularly sad, Mineo especially who was the victim of a Hollywood blacklist due to his sexuality. Where the heart of Rebel Without a Cause is found is in James Dean, an enigma who everyone in the cast fell in love with (several literally). The book does a lovely job of detailing how the cast came to see Dean as the embodiment of everything they wanted in an actor, to the audiences too which is probably why Rebel has never been recreated.
Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause is an amazing book. It combines everything you’d ever want to know about the film in particular, but also Hollywood and acting. It’s part history, part gossip, part biography and worth the read.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.