East of Eden August 5, 2016
Watch James Dean in any one of his three films and you’ll observe that he always seems to be a young man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not in the sense that his characters are unyieldingly conflict-ridden — though they are — but in the sense that Dean himself seems to exist on a different planet than the greater sum of his peers. He seems too contemporary, too ageless, as if it were destined from the start that he’d never live long enough to be personified as anything besides a symbol of teenage rebellion to be cherished for an eternity. Looking at a colored photograph of the actor at his prime and an outsider might not realize that in front of them is a star of sixty years ago, not a suave, cool fixture of the modern age.
It’s astonishing how unscathed Dean’s legend has remained sixty-one years after his 1955 death. One comprises their filmography of only a trio of movies and they become largely forgotten, a cultishly fondled over sign of the times. But Dean’s then (and still) excitingly fresh personal appeal, endorsed by films and performances that harnessed his capabilities miraculously well, allows for his persona to go far beyond what the big screen usually lets on. Like Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, or even John Wayne, he seems to be additionally playing James Dean, not just a character sketched out by a persnickety screenwriter.
East of Eden (1955), his feature debut and the only movie released during his lifetime, contains his best and most pensive performance. He’s so much an “other” (when comparing his acting style to those within his studio system controlled peer group) that a bizarre charge overcomes us when watching him; we cling onto every move he makes, as if trying to avoid losing grasp of the fleeting longevity of his stardom. It’s a characterization not made impressive out of stagey, fiery monologues, per usual in the melodrama preferring Hollywood of the time, but out of idiosyncratic zeal. Heavy on improvisation and dependent on contortionistic body movement as an emotional release, Dean’s performance was unprecedented in 1955 and remains to be extraordinary.
East of Eden itself is a loose adaptation of the second half of John Steinbeck’s novel, which unapologetically modernized the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The film, set in coastal California in the late 1910s, follows the lives of Cal and Aron Trask (Dean and Richard Davalos), the sons of a humble vegetable farmer (Raymond Massey). Aron is a charming extrovert, dating the susceptible Abra (Julie Harris) and uninhibitedly preferred by his old man. He’s ripe for a sensible future, which marks for great contrast from his brother.
Cal, by comparison, is a gawky introvert whose self-confidence has been maimed by his father’s unhidden disfavor of him. He acts erratically and isn’t able to socialize with normality — he’s never known what it’s like to be loved. His mother’s death, said to have occurred just a few years after his birth, hasn’t helped his unstable identity, either. Cal longs to be like his father, who is a smart businessman, and he perhaps wishes to be more like Aron, who is self-possessed and better able to express himself.
But the film finds him at a major turning point in his life. Nearing adulthood, Cal is starting to move past contently living in the shadows; he craves something more. Much of his newfound desire to break out of his shell has to do with his discovering that his mother (Jo Van Fleet) isn’t dead — she’s actually the owner of the town brothel — and that love really can exist. He finds it with Abra, who’s beginning to doubt her long-standing relationship with Aron. But patriarchal approval is the one thing that stands in the way of Cal’s potential, and success will elude him until he receives it.
Whereas Rebel Without a Cause has dated since its initial release, now playing as a rather safe (but still compelling) coming-of-age shocker, East of Eden prevails as a meditative family drama, visually inventive and naturalistically acted. It captures what made Dean so special beautifully, allowing for his own ticks and sensitivities to break through the celluloid, and it surrounds him with an ensemble just as distinctively disparate. Harris, though ten years too old for the part, brings accessible girl-next-door allure to the part, so convincingly at a psychological tug-of-war that our empathy swallows us. Van Fleet is seditious as Cal and Aron’s wicked mother, and Burr is superbly condescending as a father unable to understand the damage his emotional put-downs are having on his youngest.
But East of Eden is Dean’s movie. His character’s acute delicacy makes him all the more of a gripping protagonist — we’re desperate to get inside his head, akin to the way Harris’s Abra attempts to free him from the chains of his self-inflicted self-hate — and the emotional bruises that come along with his imbalances hurt us just as much as they hurt him.
We can only ponder what would have become of Dean’s career had he been able to be more than a three hit wonder. Would he have continued redefining himself, like a Newman, or would he have become a victim of his own insecurities, like a Brando? Ambiguity reigns, and the viewing of East of Eden is partially so thrilling because we have to consume so much of him. We have so little. A