Saturday, 9 February 2013

East of Eden (1955)

In 1955 the world changed. One man made that major change. The truth is he could have hardly been called a man at the time. His name was James Dean. He starred in only three films. All of which he played a rebel, a troublemaker and the kind of person we all wish we were. Marlon Brandon was almost given the lead in East of Eden, but it was decided he was too old. You can tell that James Dean never acted, everything he did was play himself. In fact, John Stienbeck (author of the novel "East of Eden") arrived on the set one day and after meeting Dean he exclaimed "Jesus Christ... HE IS CAL!" Another example of Dean's rebellious attitude is when he refused to show up at the premiere of East of Eden, for unknown reasons. This act of rebellion nearly cost Dean his starring role in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, which is perhaps Dean's most well-known role.

Personally, I find that East of Eden best demonstrates Elia Kazan's very original directorial style. There is a classic scene on a rooftop where Cal (James Dean) talks to Abra (Julie Harris). The reason I selected this scene is because in order to get the reaction he hoped for from his actors, he actually got James Dean drunk so he could best deliver a realistic performance. However, Elia Kazan wasn't the only actor doing original things to help cast members deliver the best possible performances. Off-camera, James Dean would provoke Raymond Massey so Massey would hate Dean. The reason for this bizarre action is that Dean felt that this would make Massey's acting as Dean's hating father would appear more realistic. In looking back to this classic film, it most certainly have worked. Eli Kazan knew that Massey despised Dean but did nothing to prevent it, as he approved of realism in characters.

In '56 East of Eden was nominated for four Oscars in the categories of best actor, supporting actress, directing and original screenplay. It one best supporting actress but lost all of the others. Now a days many would despite the academy's naive ruling and consider it an injustice. East of Eden is judged to be Kazan's greatest film as well as James Dean's greatest film. It certainly makes sense to be given such a claim. Despite the fact that I do believe that East of Eden is slightly overrated it still deserves it's position as a major Hollywood classic. What makes this film Kazan's best? Two words. These two words were made into an Eagles song... "James Dean".

We start in 1917, a historic time period: right before America drew involvement into World War I. Adam Trask is a successful and elderly farmer with two sons. His first son is Aron, a young successfully who resembles his father; both physically and mentally. His other son is named Cal. To say the least, Cal is the opposite of his brother. He is moody and has difficulty managing his angry outbursts. 

Cal learns from his father that his mother is alive, which contradicts that how his father had claimed that she was dead for many years. After tracking her down, Cal now understands where his anger comes from. After his father loses most of his money, Cal begins to sell beans in order to make money and impress his father. This fails and Cal is once more united with a feeling of depression. Matters get worse as Cal and Abra begin to feel an attraction towards each other.

Nothing is going correctly for Cal as he watches how is life is being torn apart before his eyes. East of Eden is a fascinating character study of a young man who we can all relate to.

East of Eden is the type of film that strongly grows on you over time. At least, that how the film worked for me. At times East of Eden is just a little too much, but then again, which Kazan isn't? East of Eden is made by it's acting. There is very little more to comment on while discussing East of Eden.

In the other Kazan films I've seen, this is most likely the greatest performances from the entire ensemble. No, this does not have the greatest performances, but as a whole, East of Eden gets the cake. James Dean does overact  but that's the way the part was written. He takes the lead as as symbol for young people who want to rebel against the strict guidelines of society. This is the best film to view James Dean's best acting. If Dean had not been tragically struck by a car the same year East of Eden was released he would have made perhaps another 30 films. 20 of those films would have been made for money and not have James Dean delivering his greatest performances. The other ten films would most likely have good nonperformance by James Dean, but I highly doubt any of them would compare to East of Eden

Julie Harris demonstrates true diverse acting. She is the star of my favourite horror film, The Haunting in which she plays a nervous woman on the verge of a mental breakdown. In this she plays a young and pretty woman in love. It seems like a simple role that doesn't necessarily demonstrate acting the rises above and beyond. However, Julie Harris adds a simple twist to make her character both realistic and sympathetic. Her character, Abra, apples a new side to Cal that we would not get from any other type of character. Abra's character is more essential than more people give it credit for. Julie Harris nails it. 

The novel, "East of Eden" is more a competition between brothers than it is in the film. I find that the film, East of Eden, cycles around Cal's need for respect from his father, not so much his rivalry between his brother. That said, Raymond Massey does a great job acting like he hates his son, but not acting like he really loves his son (which (this isn't a spoiler) he really does). This is probably because he truly hated James Dean, as I mentioned earlier.

Burl Ives is a great character actor. He gives us a moment to smile and think, "Hey! That's Burl Ives!", but he really does not deliver a great performance like he did in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Finally, the only character that got themselves an Oscar for this film, Jo Van Fleet. She seemed to understand not only her character completely but also Cal's character completely. This was a difficult part to play as she has to find the connection between herself and James Dean to make us believe that she really is the character she plays. She delivers a fabulous performances. 

Finally, I can understand how some people can really dive into East of Eden, but the film in it's entirety did not appeal to myself as much as it did to others. Still, a very strong film.

East of Eden,
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: James Dean, Julie Harris and Jo Van Fleet
8/10 (A-)

1. Baby Doll
2. Panic in the Streets
3. Splendor in the Grass
4. East of Eden
5. The Last Tycoon
6. Boomerang!
7. Viva Zapata!
8. Pinky
9. Wild River
10. America, America
11. The Arrangement

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