A guide to cinema’s most enduring rebels

What is it that makes maverick character actors like Jack Nicholson so dangerously irresistible?


Christopher Machell

Milos Forman’s epochal One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was re-released in cinemas this month just in time for Jack Nicholson’s 80th birthday. Nicholson’s iconic performance as Randall P McMurphy remains an emblem of rebellion. His clash with Nurse Ratched is one of post-war American cinema’s great depictions of injustice, and will resonate with anyone who has ever had to deal with a jobsworth in a position of authority.

But what is it about cinematic rebels that makes them so appealing? Superficially, many rebels have little in common. Jeff Bridges’ The Dude, for example, could hardly be further from John Hurt’s Winston Smith living in the dystopia of 1984, yet both resist the restrictive expectations of society, raising the ire of powerful figures, and suffering the consequences of their non-conformity. It’s just that one is covertly resisting the proscriptions of a totalitarian regime, resulting in his eventual torture and brainwashing, whereas the other pushes the boundaries of acceptability by bowling in his dressing gown.

One might argue that the defining aspect of a rebel is their resistance is systems and individuals in power. But The Wolf of Wall Street‘s chaotic, unruly Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is hardly an underdog fighting an unjust system, though his destructive behaviour invariably situates him as a rebel anyway. In contrast, we’d never consider slick corporate slimeball Gordon Gecko a rebel, so what’s the difference? Perspective plays its part – it’s easy to sympathise with bank robbers and killers if we can justify or vicariously enjoy their bad behaviour, as we do with Belfort. The sense of fun that often accompanies rule breaking is important too: Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson’s mischievous Jokers are rebels, Jared Leto’s obnoxious antagonist in Suicide Squad less so.

If having fun while breaking the rules is the measure of a true rebel, then surely the eponymous gremlins of Joe Dante’s film are the ultimate mavericks. There’s a palpably adolescent joy in watching the anarchic little devils tear up suburbia, menacing the adults and sending mean old Mrs Deagle careering through a first-floor window on her sabotaged stair lift.

Where Dante’s tearaways upend the nostalgia of a 1950s suburban utopia, James Dean in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause is the de facto icon of the era, his angsty posturing a reaction to the masculine crisis and thinly-veiled gay subtext of the film. It’s Marlon Brando in The Wild One, however, who wins out for authentically dangerous charisma. When asked what he’s rebelling against, his acerbic quip, “What do you got?” is the perfect summation of the juvenile need to kick against something, regardless of what it is.

The trope of the teenage malcontent experienced an interesting revival in the early 2000s, with Thora Birch briefly the poster child for adolescent rebellion, a scouring millennial James Dean. In Terry Zwigoff’s bitterly tender Ghost World, Enid goes out of her way to alienate her milquetoast dad and her best friend, Rebecca, while cultivating a co-dependent relationship with Steve Buscemi’s lonely Seymour. Clever, sulky and endlessly contrary, Enid is emblematic of the formless rebellion of teen dissatisfaction.

In her sophomoric search for authenticity, Thora would surely have appreciated Albert and David Maysles’ seminal 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens. By turns a hilarious, heartbreaking and disturbing study of mother and daughter “Little” and “Big” Edie Bouvier-Beale, the former high society belles live as virtual recluses in their dilapidated mansion. Resisting the norms of upper-class society, Little Edie and Big Edie have become rousing emblems of non-conformity, though their iconography as rebels remains an unsettling example of the fetishisation of mental illness.

Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) certainly wouldn’t stand for James Dean’s whining, either, too busy leading a matriarchal insurgency against the misogynistic Immortan Joe to worry about teenage temper tantrums. Action cinema isn’t short of lone warriors, of course, but the ubiquitous comic-book movie has some interesting rebel-heroes, too, with the puckish Tank Girl of Rachel Talalay’s 1995 comic adaptation an underappreciated icon of anti-authoritarian ’90s cyberpunk.

More recently, the X-Men films have offered parables of teen disenfranchisement, the heroes’ mutations pointedly manifesting during puberty. Ice Man’s mutation stands in for homosexuality in X2 (“Have you tried not being a mutant”) sulky Pyro is embarrassingly emo in The Last Stand, and Logan’s feral Laura skewers, decapitates and dismembers her way through the adults that seek to exploit her burgeoning power.

Andrea Arnold’s last three films form a loose trilogy of youthful female rebellion, beginning with the vulnerable Mia in Fish Tank, followed by the unruly Cathy in a visceral rendering of Wuthering Heights, and concluding with the charismatic but naive Star (Sasha Lane) in American Honey. Refreshingly, Arnold’s self-assured female rebels offer an antidote to the counter-cultural bellyaching of the baby boomer generation. So too, do the films of John Waters, whose envelope-pushing Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingoes introduced audiences to the truly shocking and audacious talents of Divine, whereas his riotous Serial Mom sees Kathleen Turner’s eponymous Mom gleefully slashing her way through suburbia.

Cinematic rebels aren’t necessarily sympathetic but they are always charismatic. Often these figures appeal as a fantasy, allowing us to vicariously kick against the system without having to endure the commitment of a social or political movement. As Groucho Marx once famously asserted, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” The rebel endures as a cinematic trope not simply because it is fun to be naughty, but because the fun in naughtiness exposes the artificiality of norms that otherwise seem self-evident.

Nicholson’s RP McMurphy is emblematic of the satirical nature of rebellion, and in our troubled times, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a reminder of the power in exposing of injustice through irreverence.

Published 22 Apr 2017

Tags: Jack Nicholson James Dean

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