Facts, figures and timeline; when it comes to writing about film history, inevitably, these three factors tend to be the most direct way to research and construct a piece. Nevertheless, as long
as humans are involved, there will always be subjectivity involved in history’s telling. In narrative films, identification with actors is crucial. In other words, humans in films are what make the films appear “humane” to the audience. The star, being a carrier and presenter of the ideology within the film, is a paradoxical body that reflects the “unconscious” desire of society whilst simultaneously constructing an image that causes influences to social phenomenon (Clyde and Gomery 173). As Clyde and Gomery asserts, the construction of star image is about binding two seemingly unrelated aspects together: the “filmic persona” and the “off-screen personality”. How does a star image travels through time and space, and most importantly, through different groups of audiences? It is by creating an interesting discourse between three parties: the character, the audience, and the actor. From the Soviet Montage movement, to French New Wave in the 50s, to contemporary third-cinema, the topic of rebellion never seems to fade away. In the 50s and 60s, this spirit tended to be linked to male figures. In this entry to our blog post, we decided to do a comparison between the star image of two actors across the Atlantic Ocean – James Dean and Jean Du Belmondo – with their wildly celebrated works – Rebel Without a Cause (1956) and A Bout de Souffle (1960), respectively – to see how their star image was created and still being used today.
In a postcard promoting the 50th re-release of Rebel by BFI (see: figure 1), there are two interesting points we found. The first is the caption written on top of the film title – “The ultimate film about living fast and dying young”. The second is found on the back of the card – a note detailing a special preview screening for the 1
9th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Regardless of the fact that Dean’s character is not the one who died in the film, this caption of “dying young” implies a connection between the film narrative and Dean’s life experience as an actor. As he died in a car accident before the release of Rebel Without a Cause, only his third film, his death almost mythically aroused people’s extreme mourning and fascination. Two teenage girls even committed suicide after hearing of his death. Here we can see a tactful use of the commemoration of James Dean’s death as a promotion strategy for the film’s rerelease. BBC idoliser wrote in a newspaper (see: figure 2
) his doubt about anyone being able to express the frustration of the adolescence. It is as if the name “James Dean” became completely synonymous with the identity of a rebel.
But what does it mean to be a rebel? The quality of passionately expressing repressed feelings against a dominant party is a main theme throughout the film. Jim Stark, as a newcomer of the high school, faces stressful situations such as bullying, unresolved parental problems and the death of his only friend. The struggle and rage of this character, who seems so stuck in the phase between adult and child, is released through violent action scenes (such as a knife fighting outside the museum) as well as Jim’s drastic emotional explosions (take the scene at the police station as an example). The notion of taking actions to challenge the authorities for the sake of “freedom” and “
happiness” is then implied by this character played by Dean. When reviewed today from a more sexually open-minded perspective, Jim and Plato’s relationship can be regarded as one of the first films at its time that embraces the heterogeneity of sexualities. Although the characters’ sexuality is never verbally expressed in the film, Plato’s affection for Jim is ambiguously suggested throughout their interactions. Jim’s acceptance and protection for Plato who is isolated by peers and frightened by policemen by the end, marks him as a rebel who not only knows how to fight back for his own rights, but also not afraid to defend the suppressed. Dean’s representation in this film of acting against the authority was also used in Poland as a symbol against Communist regime.
The concept of being a “rebel” changes and expands over time, shifted from the desire to break free from constraints and troubles, to a political stance that concerns more than personal benefits. Another item we looked at is a biographical magazine published in 1988 in London (see: figure 3). Often compared to Marlon Bran
do, James Dean is not the first nor the last film star that is regarded as a symbol of rebelliousness. With similar appearance distinctions such as a white T-shirt with leather jacket and hair pushed back, it is an inevitable thought that Dean imitates Brando’s rebel style. Dean responded by declaring the uniqueness of his own style: “I have my own personal rebellion and don’t have to rely on Brando’s” (see: figure 4). Even Dean himself connected his star image with his image as a person. To embody a character, publicity of the similarities between Jim and Dean is significant. Reciting Richard Dyer’s work on construction of star image, publicity and criticism of the actor work hand in hand with promotion and the films (Clyde and Gomery 175). Information about Dean’s personal life, such as difficult times before becoming a film star and his affairs with different women, all tie him with the struggle of his character in Rebel Without a Cause. Dying with his representative work, in a way, makes him an idealised “legend” that is forever young at heart and never compromised.
On the other hand is Jean-Paul Belmondo, a French film star whose tough guy persona and expressive, unconventional charms have made him a typifying cinematic figure of the New French Wave films. This movement based in France was a revolutionary change in cinema. It was initiated by the critics who wrote for the influential magazine ‘Cahiers du Cinema’, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and others like Claude Chabrol or Eric
Rohmer. All of them became trail-blazing film-makers later on and all wanted Belmondo in front of their cameras.
Belmondo is indeed a good representation of this cinema period. His macho attitude and rebellious figure acutely match the revolution that swiped the French cinema in 1960. The New Wave was a deep rejection of the cinematic conventions, refusing traditional linear storytelling and marrying the rapid cuts of Hollywood with philosophical trends, creating a new language of film. Belmondo, on his side, was an embodiment of the rebellious bad boy, a face for this brand of cinema that shrugs off typical conventions and rules.
The French hero was born in France and had always, since his young age, been more interested in sports than in school. He was a boxer and his own stuntman in all of the dangerous and spectacular scenes of his movies.
If his virile and powerful male attitude was such a success at the box office, it was because during this period, the audience went to the cinema to be impressed. While the audience today is mainly looking for actors who they can identify themselves with, the public during the 1960s wanted to see people better than them. Braver men, stronger and more handsome, men who could do things they would never be capable of doing. Belmondo was able to achieve any stunts, from jumping out of car moving at a high speed like in Flic ou Voyou by Georges Lautner, to standing up on a sail planner while flying in the air in L’as des Ases by Gérard Oury. Nothing scared him and this is the reason why as soon as one of his films came out, the audience talked more about his stunts and his acting than about the film itself. With the New Wave came a new man. Sensual, cool and macho, always provocative and funny, he has marked the aesthetics of an era. Always in movement and in search of action, Belmondo was the French adventurer. Cop or thug, spoiled or marginal child; Belmondo will always be the epitome of French manhood.
However, despite being known mainly for his crime and thriller features in which he portrayed gangsters or cops, the actor also starred in melodramas with Romy Schneider and Alain Delon. In A bout de Souffle or Breathless, directed by Jean Luc Godard, the criminal and bad boy embodied by Belmondo is also one who can love. The hotel scene in which the actor orders Jean Seberg to smile if she does not want him to strangle her is a good example of his capacity to play both the lover and thug at the same time. Breathless was a major success in France and overseas and launched Belmondo as an international name. In the words of the New York Times it led to his having “more acting assignments than he can handle”. Belmondo plays the role of a small-time thief that impulsively murders a motorcycle policeman after stealing a car. He falls in love with a hip American journalism student played by Jean Seberg, and attempts to persuade her to run away with him to Italy to run away from the authorities. Godard reveals the actor’s talent to the public with his emblematic film of the French New Wave.
The two actors both serve as mascots for their respective rebellious lifestyles, but while Dean (and the characters he portrayed) seems to be a rebellion against the American societal structure, it could be argued that his rebellion is not as true as Belmondo’s. The films in which Dean starred were all filmed and made in Hollywood, a system so typical and emblematic of the American social structure that one must question the role the ‘rebellion’ persona played as a marketing tool. Dean was raised around other Hollywood figures too, attending the same studio classes as the likes of Ben Gazzara and Steve McQueen (http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2007/07/06/another-bologna-briefing/ ). The French New Wave movement in its entirety was a response to Hollywood and typical filmmaking. It was an entirely original and self-sustainable effort separate from the Hollywood system. Comparatively, Dean’s presence in the Hollywood sphere could be a play by producers and marketers to capitalize on the idea of counter-culture; rather than try to turn the defiant to their side, surely they could use Dean to create, fuel, and gain from a counter-culture, an oxymoronic use of rebellion to further fund the Hollywood system.
To conclude: it is hard to argue that these two rebellious figures serve a crucial role in understanding film history. Not only do they exemplify the mindsets of their respective generations, but they helped define or create cultures around their personalities, characters, and – in the case of James Dean – even a death. They not only mark a milestone in the ever-evolving treatment of masculinity and male figures in cinema, but serve as an entry point in the understanding of larger more complex movements such as the French New Wave and American rebellion.
Allen, Robert Clyde, and Douglas Gomery. “Case study: The role of the star in film history”. Film history: Theory and practice. Hodder & Stoughton, 1985. pp. 172-186
Article on James Dean by Dilys Powell. EXEBD 16204. Consulted on 4 Apr. 2018 in Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, UK
Bordwell, David. “Another Bologna Briefing”. David Bordwell’s website on cinema, Jul. 6 2007.
A Bout de Souffle, directed by Jean Luc Godard, Les Films Impéria et al., 7 Feb. 1961.
Dawson, Jonathan. “À Bout De Souffle (Breathless).” Senses of Cinema, 4 June 2014,
Godard, Jean-Luc. “À Bout De Souffle.” Barnes & Noble, 6 april 1999
Guerber, A. Lhistoire Du Cinéma Français. Service International De Presse
James Dean: official anniversary book. EXEBD 11367. Consulted on 4 Apr. 2018 in Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, UK
James Dean: the man, the legend. EXEBD 46066. published in 1988, London. Consulted on 4 Apr. 2018 in Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, UK
Marie, Michel. The French New Wave: an Artistic School. Blackwell, 2007
“Overview for Jean-Paul Belmondo.” Turner Classic Movies, 2011
Promotional Postcard for ‘Rebel without a Cause’. EXEBD 90382. published in 2005, UK. Consulted on 4 Apr. 2018 in Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, UK
Rebel Without a Cause, directed by Nicholas Ray, Warner Brothers, 29 Oct. 1955.