“Mother, this is your other son Aron. Aron is everything that’s good, Mother. Aron, say hello to your Mother.”
There is something wonderfully basic about the James Dean legacy. He really only made three films. All of them were arguably excellent and his performances in each are without a doubt brilliant and fiery. He died young so he never ages except in the closing moments of Giant. Every character he played had solid American one syllable names like Cal Trask, Jim Stark, and Jett Rink. He was usually garbed in the eternally cool combination of blue jeans and a plain white shirt so he never seems dated or out of touch. The camera loved him and despite the brevity of his career there seems to be as many still photos of him around as there are of Madonna. I’ve met people who idolized the guy enough to litter their apartments with his likeness who had never even seen one of his films. Even his death at the wheel of a Porsche Spider is suitably romantic and edgy.
East of Eden was the only film that came out while Dean was alive and it remains his best film and most electric performance. In Rebel Without a Cause, he was a little confused and his Dad was sympathetically ineffectual, here he is convinced that he was born a bad seed and his Dad is a bible thumping taskmaster unable to show his desperate to please son any sort of sympathy or love.
Based on the John Steinbeck novel, East of Eden recasts the Cain and Abel story in Salinas, California. Richard Davalos is the high minded good egg Aron. Both Aron and Dean have been led to believe that their Mother is dead, and Aron especially is convinced that she was some kind of saintly presence in her time on Earth. Meanwhile, ultra religious Dad (Raymond Massey) is desperately wasting all of his money trying to refrigerate lettuce for long train rides.
Dean isn’t just a little confused here he is downright tormented and you can see it in his twisted gnarled and tightly conflicted body language. He leans, slouches, and alternates his speech between resigned mumbles of annoyance and rifle shot explosions of occasional anger. Dean’s Cal is desperate for his father’s love and approval and the fact that he doesn’t have it makes him angry as a bear. In essence, he perfectly reflected the discomforting truth of the modern American teenager. They’ve been trying to interpret the modern teen ever since and no one has ever come close to his accuracy or his cool, and God knows ever self respecting, self reflecting want to be hip person has spent every second of their lives trying. There was a reason that Elvis Presley memorized every one of his lines in every one of his movies.
It helps that he acts his ass off here, but the fact that he is achingly beautiful doesn’t hurt either. Never in the history of movies was a film so absolutely enraptured by its subject than East of Eden is with Dean. The camera desperately records his every twist and turn of emotion as if preserving it were of the utmost importance. As much as Dean’s Cal wants his fathers love, Elia Kazan seems to be equally fascinated and in love with every one of Dean’s movements.
Just about every scene Dean has with Raymond Massey here is unbelievable. The fact that Massey disliked Dean in real life apparently helped things along. Early in the movie Massey sits across a long table from Dean. The close ups are always slanted to show Dean on the bottom and Massey at the top. Massey tells Dean to read a list from the bible. Dean reads it back hostilely. Massey instructs him to leave out the numbers, but Dean growing angrier by the second would rather be struck dead on the spot than give in. All of Dean’s characters are pretty easy to tick off. In Rebel, he would have played Russian Roulette with six bullets if you ever dared to call him chicken to try it. Dean’s Cal has discovered that his mother is still alive, and that his father has covered up the fact that she left him all of his life. When he discovers that she is a well heeled hard bitten madame up in Monterey, he becomes convinced that Aron inherited the good biblical nature from his father and that he got all the bad from his mother.
Again Dean is left twisted and tormented in agony. The fact that Aron has his father’s love makes him want to hate his brother, but years and years of being told that Aron was the second coming have convinced him that it is true. Ice Cube’s relationship with Morris Chestnut in Boyz ‘N’ the Hood is exactly parallel. Both have been conditioned to believe that the other brother’s life was so much more important than their own.
Julie Harris’ Abra is the perfect portrait of the modern American young woman. She is Aron’s girlfriend, and Dean scares her to death. Of course this just makes her want him all the more. Her brain tells her to be with Aron, but every other part of her is fascinated by Dean’s walk on the wild side. This movie came out around the same time Leo Durocher said “Nice Guys Finish Last” and East of Eden is documented proof.
Dean’s Cal has his strong sides. He works like a mule to help his fathers lettuce nonsense succeed and when it fails concocts a bean investing scheme to make back the money the previous episode burned up. His hopes of providing his father with this birthday present get trumped by Aron’s engagement announcement, and then to top it off his father finds a way to disapprove of how he made the money. When Massey refuses the money from Dean, Dean breaks down and tries to hug his father. Massey recoils from him and Dean’s subsequent devastation is probably the most painfully electric acting I’ve ever seen. It’s just seconds later that he comes out from under the darkness of a willow tree to embrace the bad side and share some pain with his brother. Something like this is probably why Anakin joined the dark side. East of Eden has all this, Burl Ives(!), an ecstatic Dean dance in a bean field, Richard Davalos putting his head through a train window, and an ending that makes me cry every time. What could be a better way to spend two hours?