From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
This week we are celebrating Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause. Get your tickets here!
When we first meet Natalie Wood’s Judy in Rebel Without a Cause, she is dressed head to toe in the always symbolic color red, weeping in a police station, having been picked up for breaking curfew. She is concerned about her father hating her. Her father (William Hopper) “looks at her like he’s disgusted” by her; she grieves over his calling her a dirty tramp and wiping the lipstick off her face. Wood is wonderful in this scene, hitching her breath and trembling her lip as she hyperventilates through her lamentations. It’s a bit overwrought (ok, maybe more than a bit), but as a former teen girl, it’s relatable. The pain of being stuck between the need of a father’s love and the desire to grow up is a real, tangible thing. The officer—far more gentle than you’d expect—suggests that maybe her rebellion is a way to get his attention since they’re no longer close. With tears rolling down her freckled face, Wood is beautifully representing every teen girl whose dad was unequipped to handle their coming of age. When the police tell her they’ve sent for her mother, she is heartbroken—she wants her father there, regardless of how angry he’d be. She wants her father to notice her again.
At dinner, Judy kisses her father on the lips, which is…strange to watch. He chides her for being too old for it now, and when he says they stopped doing that long ago, she sadly says she didn’t want to stop. Judy may as well be wearing a shirt that says #ElectraComplex. This dinner scene, with tension so thick you can choke on it, is creepy. “I didn’t kiss her,” her father says to her mother (Rochelle Hudson), trying to focus his attention on his young son instead. Wood tries to talk to him, asks him to explain why their relationship has changed, and he loses his temper, reiterating that she’s too old to be kissing him. She presses on, asking “Girls don’t love their fathers? Since when? Since I got to be 16?” and tries to kiss him on the cheek again, causing him to slap her. Wood’s natural beauty is innocent, childlike, but he is still angry. She can’t win: she’s not a child, and she’s closer to a woman than he is able to deal with. She is beautiful, and she is sad.
In a society where everything is overly sexualized, I can’t help but be horrified by this scene. “I don’t know what to do, all of a sudden she’s a problem” he says as she storms out of the house. Her mother responds, “She’ll outgrow it dear. It’s just the age when nothing fits”. This is the most accurate line in the movie: at sixteen, there’s no place that feels comfortable.
Wood’s Judy is a fascinating character because she is pinging off opposite poles; tough girl, ingénue. She is who she has to be as the situation calls for it, and she is forever finding her footing. Director Nicholas Ray uses Wood’s ability to showcase both sides of the teen girl spectrum to his advantage. When Jim (James Dean) says life can be beautiful, she rolls her eyes. When he asks if she lives next door, she scoffs “Who lives?” She hangs “with the kids”, and as they pull up to greet her, a jalopy filled with mostly young men (including her boyfriend, Buzz, played by Corey Allen), she transforms from soft spoken and wry to a smiling, laughing gal. One of the guys. Something her father would hate. Wood is seamless in this transition. She can play sullen and dark and then, with a slight shoulder turn, she’s the life of the party. And yet, when she later tells Jim she loves him, it’s truly believable, the sincerity of a young, troubled love.
An article on the site StinkyLulu has good thoughts on Wood’s performance of the Judy character:
Between these two sets of scenes, Ray and Wood vividly depict two faces of Judy. Whether either Judy is an act becomes less important than the fact that she's so adept at being both, of being whoever she needs or wants to be at any given moment. And to her credit, Wood seems to get this. The actress seems to appreciate Judy's "pretend" as a mode of self-protection and self-preservation.
It is impossible to know what Judy is really feeling; one would like to think she shows us her true self, but what is her true self? A daughter desperate for her father’s affection? A bad girl with a dangerous boyfriend? A tender, maternal source of comfort? A teen dream with sleepy eyes and tender kisses? Or is she all of these things? Teenage girls, of course, contain multitudes.
Judy: excited as she starts off the game of chicken, standing strong and tall in the middle of two cars racing towards a cliff. Judy: tenderly placing a shoe onto the body of the dead Plato (Sal Mineo). Which one is the real Judy, the one she desires to be? And why can’t it be both?