Sal Mineo Film Festival hits the west coast

Sal Mineo

Sal Mineo, the 1950s/60s film actor best known for playing “Plato” in Rebel Without a Cause, was an extraordinary figure in Hollywood. In an era when most gay stars were deeply closeted and forced to go on fake "dates" by studio publicity flaks, Mineo was courageous enough to be openly queer. He even directed a controversial stage play, Fortune and Men’s Eyes, that featured homosexuality and full frontal male nudity. Although he never enjoyed the level of fame of some of his contemporaries—perhaps due in part to his provocative personality—the Bronx born Mineo had an impressively varied career and has amassed a devoted following. His sensitive and relatable performances, not to mention his striking, dark haired good looks, have as much to do with that as his sexuality.

The New Beverly Cinema is hosting a Sal Mineo Film Festival this month, featuring an impressive amount of the actor's filmography. This Friday and Saturday (May 12 and 13) they're screening a 35mm print of 1955's Rebel, the movie that put Mineo on the map and earned him an Oscar nomination. Mineo's portrayal of the sensitive misfit John "Plato" has been lauded as cinema's first gay teenager, and the chemistry between him and hunky James Dean's Jim Stark is palpable. The character meets a predictably tragic end for the time, but the portrayal is still sympathetic and groundbreaking.

Mineo (right) stares longingly at pal and crush James Dean

Mineo snagged his second Oscar nod for his role as Dov Landau in Otto Preminger's 1960 Israel epic Exodus (screening May 14–16). New York Times critic Bosley Crowther described the character—a rape victim and Auschwitz survivor—as "played superbly by Sal Mineo ... absolutely overwhelming." Such meaty roles belied the fact that Rebel typecast Mineo as "the Switchblade Kid," forcing him to play numerous street toughs. The New Beverly is including two prime examples of that trend with a double feature of Crime in the Streets (1956) and Dino (1957) on May 24 and 25. The latter film is not available on DVD.

Mineo sizzles in Who Killed Teddy Bear?

For my money, the can't-miss film of the program is Who Killed Teddy Bear? This 1965 cult oddity features Mineo as a smoldering bus boy obsessed with a DJ (Juliet Prowse) at the club where he works. (The movie is only available on DVD in the UK.) The highly entertaining thriller packs in all sorts of Freudian provocation, and features legendary Elaine Stritch as lesbian club owner Marian. ("I dig soft things, don't you?" she purrs to Prowse at one point.) Director Joseph Cates vividly portrays a lost era of New York City; all of the sin and sleaze that Rudy Gulianni expunged from Times Square is on full display here. So, too, is Mineo's physique—the emphasis on male semi-nudity, especially in an incredibly erotic workout montage, is unusual for a film from this, or any other era. Who Killed Teddy Bear? played to a sold out audience at Lincoln Center Film Society last spring when it was included in their series "Queer Cinema Before Stonewall." I'd bet on a similar turnout in Los Angeles, for both this film and much of the schedule devoted to the trailblazing Sal Mineo.

The Sal Mineo Film Festival screens at the New Beverly Cinema through May 25. Visit the New Beverly website for more info.

Information for this article came in part from Michael Gregg Michaud's terrific Sal Mineo: A Biography (2010).