Over the years, when asked about his script for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, Stewart Stern often stated that his favorite moment in the film occurs just before the famed “Chickie Run.” Jim, the film’s hero, shares a cigarette with Buzz, his challenger in the run. Buzz’s interaction with Jim up to this point has included everything from vicious taunts to a knife fight, yet he suddenly turns to Jim and says “I like you, you know?” Jim, understandably confused, refers to the dangerous game about to take place and asks “What are we doing this for?” Buzz’s reply is simple perfection: “You got to do something.”
“One of the things I wanted to show in REBEL is that underneath all the bullshit macho defense, there was that pure drive for affection, and it didn’t matter who the recipient might be,” Stern later said, when interviewed for Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. While films such as BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and THE WILD ONE had started the cinematic trend toward focusing on youth and juvenile delinquency, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE was the first film to treat the subject as more than a social problem, to try to get inside the skin of its characters. It’s a misleading title, because Stern is all about understanding these teens and the familial situations that drive them to act out. Rather than letting REBEL’s juvenile delinquents be defined by violence, the script carefully balances scenes of knife fights and chickie runs with sensitive, revealing exchanges like the one mentioned above.
Stewart Stern’s scripts are full of such moments. He favored confused, vulnerable, inarticulate characters and he knew how to depict their struggles compassionately. His work in both film and television included RACHEL, RACHEL, THE UGLY AMERICAN, SYBIL, and THE OUTSIDER. Stern passed away on February 2 at the age of 92. To celebrate his life and his work, we’re posting an interview with him from November 21, 2012, which was conducted as part of our oral history series, THE WRITER SPEAKS:
Screenwriting was just part of Stewart Stern’s long, rich life. You can learn more about Stern’s incredible legacy from the Writer’s Guild of America, West’s tribute found here.