Movies

In 1991, Keanu Reeves Could Do It All—Except for This

Paula Abdul’s bizarre Rebel Without a Cause remake was the actor’s rare misfire.

An illustration of a man in a leather jacket holding his belt buckle.
Eoin Coveney

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Excerpt from the book Keanu Reeves: Most Triumphant by Alex Pappademas, published by Abrams Image ©2022.

1991 was Keanu Reeves’ breakthrough year. He starred in three great movies, each of which overturned preexisting ideas about Keanu and his range, while also slyly undercutting old notions of on-screen masculinity. It was one of the best movie years an actor has ever had. It was also the moment where he became a cultural icon independent of any individual movie, a pop star and an artist’s muse and an artist in his own right all at once. In August, he appeared with Alex Winter on the cover of Sassy, and in September, he and River Phoenix were on the cover of Film Comment, a newsstand presence that said something about the range of people he’s now of interest to.

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But before the first of his ’91 films hit theaters, Keanu was all over MTV in something that wasn’t a movie but looked exactly like one. The video for Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” is the closest Keanu ever comes to being a pure teen idol—a painstaking re-creation of Nicholas Ray’s 1955 teen drama Rebel Without a Cause, with Keanu playing James Dean to Abdul’s Natalie Wood. It was an odd casting decision, and even Keanu knew it. “Another regurgitation of icons and culture by the American media,” he joked about the video, in an interview that same year. “And I’m your guy, I guess, for that right now.”

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James Dean died in 1955 at age 24, about a month before Rebel opened in theaters, two years before On the Road and Elvis’s first single. His ghost has haunted young male actors’ press clippings ever since. If you are a Method dude and a bit of a feral creature; if your vibe is poète maudit; if you have trashed your trailer; if you are a person of coyly ambiguous sexual preference or someone who people enjoy imagining as such; if you wear smart-guy glasses to read surprisingly weighty books; if you tell interviewers you want to eat and breathe and shit art—you get to be referred to as the next Next James Dean for at least half a year. It helps if you can actually act, but it’s not required.

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Keanu was prone to pulling up to interviews toting a motorcycle helmet and struggling to articulate his responses to softball questions, so he seems to fit the New Dean profile, if you squint. But by invoking regurgitation, he indicated a grasp of the cyclical nature of these things. Dean was an actor whose raw energy sometimes felt too big for movies to contain; the way he bounces off the walls in Rebel Without a Cause, sometimes almost literally, represented a violent break with screen-acting tradition. His example inspired generations of iconoclasts, from Bob Dylan (who based the cover of 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan on an old photo of Dean in New York City) to Morrissey (who wrote an obsessive fan-bio about Dean in the seventies, put a picture of the actor on the cover of the Smiths’ “Bigmouth Strikes Again” single, and pretends to weep at his grave in the video for “Suedehead”). Frank O’Hara wrote tributes to him, and so did Taylor Swift. But Dean also became the subject of Hollywood Boulevard souvenir-shop nostalgia and deceased-Boomer-icon mythology, available as a key chain or a T‑shirt wherever fake Academy Awards statues are sold. And pop entertainment traded on his absence by conjuring a series of Deanesque troublemakers, who could be more easily reconciled with a calm cultural mainstream.

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“Rush Rush,” the first single off Abdul’s second LP, Spellbound, is a sweeping ballad: Abdul calls to a dream lover as drum machines tick along at prom-night spotlight-dance tempo. In the videos she’d made to promote her debut album, Straight Up, Abdul had cultivated an overtly sexual image—“Cold Hearted,” directed by David Fincher, repurposed the sultry “Take Off with Us” number from Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz—so the gentleness of “Rush Rush” was positional, a pivot to sweetness. It went on to become the longest-running number one single since Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” logging five weeks at the top of the Hot 100.

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The “Rush Rush” video was directed by Stefan Würnitzer, previously best known for En Vogue’s “Giving Him Something He Can Feel.” The imagery has that soft-edged, early-nineties music video look, the same creamy translucence as David Fincher’s videos for Madonna’s “Express Yourself” or Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun,” a kind of light synonymous with functionally limitless record-company promo budgets. Like those videos, “Rush Rush” is meant to remind you of movies, but in this case, it’s meant to remind you of a specific movie. Keanu and Abdul reenact all the big beats from Rebel Without a Cause—the drag race, Griffith Observatory, the dark empty mansion, Dean holding a milk bottle to his face to cool his teenage rage. (As it turns out, that is a move no one else but James Dean can pull off, not even Keanu Reeves.) Keanu copies other, smaller beats, like the way Dean walks with his hands in his pockets when he runs into Natalie Wood on the way to their first day of school. There’s even a restaging of the moment when the one guy in the car with the weird hat gives James Dean nonsensical directions to his new school, pointing at the sky and going, “That way.”

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Even if you know Rebel Without a Cause, you may not remember the guy in the car with the weird hat, and many young pop fans watching Paula Abdul videos in 1991 probably didn’t know the movie at all, so the care Würnitzer takes in re-creating the source material is odd; the clip has a parody’s attention to detail, minus the jokes. At the same time, it leaves out a lot of the things that made the movie what it was. There are none of the Oedipal overtones of the original, which Nicholas Ray famously conceived of after catching his son in bed with the actress Gloria Grahame, Ray’s second wife. There’s no Sal Mineo character in the Paula Abdul version of Rebel, so there’s no homage paid to the sequence where Wood and Dean and Sal Mineo’s Plato—who’s in love with Dean’s character—hide out together in the old mansion, briefly becoming a surrogate family that’s also a love triangle, dreaming in the dark that they can remake adulthood, until they’re forced to confront that fantasy’s unsustainability in the hard light of real life.

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But the real problem is that Keanu just seems too nice to play Dean’s iconically tortured Jim Stark. He lets his hair hang down in his face in a way that presents as rebellious in the context of the video’s very ’90s 1950s, but at no point does he seem like he presents any danger to Abdul or himself. In the opening credits of Rebel, Dean sinks to his belly in the gutter to examine a wind‑up monkey, then makes a little bed for the monkey out of trash, as if the monkey represents every part of him that the cold adult world can’t or won’t nurture. In the “Rush Rush” video’s version of the monkey-in-the-gutter scene, Keanu looks at the monkey like he’s thinking, Wow, what a great monkey.

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He’s a James Dean who’d fit right into the pages of Lisa Simpson’s favorite teen magazine, Non-Threatening Boys. Many other young actors of this moment might have done a better job channeling the hurt and anger Dean once brought to this role. The most obvious candidate is River Phoenix, Keanu’s costar in I Love You to Death and My Own Private Idaho, who’ll eventually go down as his generation’s James Dean by dying young and leaving the question of his future potential unanswered.

Of course, when an interviewer asked him about Dean in 1991, Phoenix said he’d never seen a Dean film, and suggested that Brad Pitt—then a newcomer who’d just given his breakthrough performance as the hitchhiker in Thelma and Louise—seemed to better fit the bill. The “Rush Rush” video couldn’t have abided Phoenix’s rubbed-raw screen presence, anyway. The movie was about establishing the social outsider as tragic hero; the video needed an actor who could soften that figure’s sharp edges, converting tragedy back into fantasy. At the beginning of 1991, Keanu was at least briefly the man for the job—already enough of a star to step into the outline of a legend and fill it somewhat credibly, wise enough to immediately shrug it off.

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