Natalie Wood gazed off-camera, her moonlit eyes glittering with sexual speculation, and wondered aloud what James Dean was like. "Well, you have to get to know him," Sal Mineo replied. His face, turned in the same direction as Natalie’s, glowed with similar lust but even greater candor. His words, inadequate to the great subject that had been proposed, emerged in dreamy, indefinite phrases, until at last he hit on the right one: "He’s sincere."
"That’s the main thing," Natalie said.
So we learn the lesson of Rebel Without a Cause: the main thing in life is not to be honest, truthful, plainspoken or straightforward but sincere. Why this should be so is not self-evident; but, if true, what can the movies tell us about this goal? Set aside all the evidence that the memoir writers have been piling up; pass by the equally mountainous body of handmade documentaries about My Personal Journey, and the pooling televisual tears of Glenn Beck. Let’s try to discover something about sincerity by looking just at movies–or, to begin, at movie stars.
I think of poor, trembling, heart-in-throat Judy Garland, who was as sincere as a whistling teakettle. Jimmy Stewart from his great, slender height could give off sincerity the way a tree drops leaves, fumbling and stammering it from himself. And what about Marilyn, that uncanny transmitter stuck in the "on" position, whose signal of vulnerable, innocent warmth somehow cut through the static of hair dye, falsies and elocution? It’s sincerity, as much as sex appeal, that has linked her in a kitschy afterlife with James Dean. Sexy actors and actresses lie thick in Forest Lawn; but sincere ones are exceptional in a business that values controlled persuasiveness, not the seemingly involuntary broadcasting of weaknesses and wounds. That’s the first thing to be learned. Go beyond the few stars mentioned, and you soon find yourself straying from Hollywood into the emotive world of John Cassavetes.
Here we come to the second lesson, which is to distinguish between sincerity, on the one hand, and ideals such as individuality and authenticity, on the other. Many directors have made personal films without any show of laying bare the heart. (Think of Erich von Stroheim, who had "phony" for a middle name. Think of the wily Hitchcock.) And by the 1950s, thanks to the prestige of Italian neorealism, directors who wanted to demonstrate their seriousness could do so by exhibiting a rough, seemingly spontaneous style. It was Cassavetes, more than anyone else, who went beyond these precedents, to take sincerity as his method and subject matter.
This great development in the history of sincerity could not have been achieved without a fight–which was fortunate, since Cassavetes was always spoiling for one. To shape the filmmaking around the actors, rather than make the actors conform to the filmmaking, required a revolt that was as much commercial as aesthetic. A successful revolt: I don’t think we’d be misreading film history too grossly if we were to trace back to Cassavetes a vast celluloid river that’s been flowing in America for the past forty years, swollen with cheaply made studies (they don’t always have enough plot to be dramas) about ordinary-seeming people whose main business is to express themselves without affectation. It would not necessarily be a disparagement of these films, some of which were recently tagged as a not-quite-movement called mumblecore, if I were to point out that by now they require no revolt. A third lesson: sincerity may never become big at the box office, but it long ago claimed its own market niche.