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  • Method Acting, Autonomy, and the Curious “as if” of the Postwar Subject in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause
  • Nathan D. Allison (bio)

You are in control. You are never out of control. You're the master. You own the thing.

Stella Adler, The Art of Acting

You've imagined it. Therefore it exists.

Stella Adler, The Art of Acting

It is only our already dead hypotheses that our willing nature is unable to bring to life again.

William James, “The Will to Believe”

Nicholas ray's rebel without a cause (1955) opens on Jim Stark (James Dean) drunkenly stumbling to the ground, hoping to get a closer look at a wind-up toy monkey he finds in the middle of a deserted street. As the title credits begin, Jim winds up the toy to watch it clang cymbals together before laying the toy down and, as if to tuck the toy monkey into bed, covering it with a piece of littered scrap paper and lying beside it in the fetal position. According to cast members and Ray, Dean improvised much of this opening (Rathgeb 138–39). As Steve Vineberg has noted, improvisation and object manipulation are marks of Method acting (6–7). Such improvisation, Virginia Wexman suggests, creates the sense that the actor “often appears to be competing with a text” (174). By “competing with a text,” the 1950s Method actor was rebelling against the text, thereby gaining a sense of individuality in what Irving Howe famously called the “age of conformity.” There is some debate about the degree [End Page 103] to which James Dean fits the mold of a Method actor. Even so, Murray Pomerance has shown that the titular rebel, Jim Stark, who longs for and to a certain degree employs “a style of performance in which very little is hidden, an 'authentic' performance,” nevertheless comes to stand in for the figure of the 1950s Method Actor (45). Through what James Naremore calls “metaperformances” (moments in which James Dean performs the role of Jim Stark as Jim Stark performs various roles in front of his peers), Rebel Without a Cause serves as a commentary on and critique of the rise of Method acting alongside, and, perhaps, in opposition to consensus culture.

The discourses arising out of 1950s consensus culture contested the liberal humanist “model of personhood—a view of the individual as a rational, motivated agent with a projected core of beliefs, desires, and memories” (Melley 14). This view of personhood was challenged in the period's simultaneous valorization and fear of conformity. As Alan Nadel has shown, “'conformity' became a positive value in and of itself,” most notably because it ensured that citizens were acquiescing to a set of given social and political norms privileged in “containment culture” (4). At the same time, fear of conformity was prevalent. In The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman's concern with the “other-direction” that was characteristic of postwar life reflected a larger concern about a perceived loss of individuality and uniqueness of personal identity (19–25). Also writing about personal identity during the same period, sociologist Erving Goffman echoes Melley when he concludes: “a correctly staged and performed scene leads the audience to impute a self to a performed character, but this imputation—this self—is a product of a scene that comes off, and is not a cause of it” (252). For Goffman, social interaction was real-life reader response in which the self was not the author but a particular interpretation of a text: one's performance. Writing on formulations of self-hood in the postwar academy, Trask asserts, “none of [the aforementioned] sociologists took the view that the self existed somewhere apart from its roles” (126). Thus, for Riesman and Goff-man, Trask writes, “there was nothing to be found in even the deepest excavation of the self's interior. The social performance went all the way down” (127). Trask pits postwar sociologists and Method teachers against one another for the sake of historicizing the range of performance-based identities advanced by the postwar academy beyond the standard performance/authenticity binary. [End Page 104]

In perhaps the most damning critique of the period...


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