Dir: Elia Kazan, 1955. Starring: James Dean, Raymond Massey, Julie Harris, Jo Van Fleet, Richard Davalos. Classics.
Just scratching the surface of John Steinbeck's massive novel, the film version of East Of Eden is most important as a introduction to James Dean and as another notch in director Elia Kazan's impressive film belt. Though the story can be a little melodramatic, concentrating on two brothers - one good, Aron (Richard Davalos), and one bad, Cal (Dean) - and and their relationship to their father, Adam (Raymond Massey) during the WWI years in Salinas, California. Adam is an overly moral man while the boy's mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) is a brothel owner. If the biblical good and evil imagery sounds heavy-handed, it is, but for James Dean's fascinating performance the film's soapy elements are well worth slogging through.
With only three films before his death at the age of 24, Dean's impact on film and film acting cannot be understated. Early in the decade Dean worked as a film extra in Hollywood, before moving to New York, where he began studying with famed acting guru Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, like his idols Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando before him. He made some minor noise working on the stage and on live television, before he was plucked up by Kazan for the role that would make him an instant star and begin an iconic legend that still continues almost 60 years after his death.
As the moody Cal, Dean uses every kind of slump and mumble known to man. In the first half of the film, as he seeks to reconnect with his long lost mother, he always looks like he is going to tumble over, as if he's walking on his tip-toes. His face always seems on the brink of tears. Later, his character gains some confidence and seems to have a stronger control of his body until, after one last grasp at connecting with his father, rejected, he flips out and goes into histrionics (as do the camera angles). Dean wears his Brando and Clift influence all over his performance. Like his method acting gods, he brings that famous Actors Studio naturalism and realism to his work, and like them, there's an aloofness and, though he is masculine, there's a pouty sexual ambiguity that combines both naivety and confidence. Beside influencing generations of actors (see Paul Newman, Mickey Rourke, and Brad Pitt's early performances), the Dean attitude can also be seen in the on-stage posing of rock stars ranging from Elvis to Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison.
Through Dean's other two films (three in total) he continued to give interesting performances. East Of Eden may be his most fully developed and ralateable film today. Rebel Without A Cause may be his signature performance, establishing him as the leading voice of teen insurrection of the 1950s, again playing a moody teen with daddy issues. In his next (and last) film, Giant, in basically a supporting role, he manages to steal most of the scenes from his co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and the stiff Rock Hudson. The last act requires him to play a middle age drunk, and though fascinating, it can read like a mumble, scenery chew-off. But, along with Brando, Dean's overall attitude (not to mention cool-ass hair) sparked generations of imitators. His persona of pure committed artist and jazzy renaissance man, as well as the needy man/child whose parents can't understand him, is still a perfectly acceptable image for any acting class student who wants to be admired for his rebellious and original voice.
In East Of Eden, Raymond Massey is much more believable as Dean's father than Jim Backus (the voice of Mr. Magoo) proves to be in Rebel Without A Cause. Apparently Massey disliked Dean's on-set method-acting ways and Kazan encouraged the disharmony, creating the necessary animosity between the two. As both brother's love interest, Julie Harris (The Haunting) brings the necessary innocent conviction. Very impressive is Jo Van Fleet, winning an Oscar for her couple of powerful scenes with Dean, cold and covering her feelings under a harsh business-only mask (she would be equally great a decade later in her one scene as Paul Newman's dying mother in Cool Hand Luke).
Elia Kazan may be famous for being a Joe McCarthy snitch, ratting out his left wing friends, but as a vital director he did bring a generation of fresh New York stage actors to the screen (beside Brando and Dean he would help to develop Andy Griffith, Warren Beatty, Karl Madlen, Eli Wallach, and many more). He was also responsible for directing a number of groundbreaking plays (Death Of A Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, etc.) and at least one genuine film masterpiece (On The Waterfront). East Of Eden has its detractors and its flaws. It may be a little over the top, but, if nothing else, as a showcase for the unique talents of James Dean it's as important a calling card as there ever has been on film.
East Of Eden won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (Jo Van Fleet) and was nominated for three more Oscars: Best Actor (James Dean), Best Director, and Best Screenplay (Paul Osborn).