East of Eden
Thursday February, 4 2016 at 06:00 PM
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Elia Kazan was at the peak of his career in 1954. He had already won two Tony Awards for his direction of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman on Broadway, and successfully transferred his stage production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire to Hollywood, helping to make a screen star of Marlon Brando. He had already won an Oscar® for Best Director (for Gentleman's Agreement ) and his most recent film, On the Waterfront (1954, his third with Brando), was a popular and critical success on the way to winning eight Oscars® (including Kazan's second for Best Director). He was in a position to pick any project of his choosing. He chose John Steinbeck's new novel, the sprawling bestseller East of Eden. What he wound up making (at the suggestion of screenwriter Paul Osborn, and with blessing of Steinbeck) was the final act of the novel, a Cain and Abel tale set in 1917 California. Cal and Aron are the sons of Adam, a single father running a vegetable farm in the Salinas valley. It was the story of the good, upstanding son (Aron) and the black sheep (Cal), a frustrated, troubled boy who simply wants his father's love and favor but allows his jealousy to lead to a terrible conflict. In later interviews, Kazan repeatedly described the film as autobiographical, a reflection of his own frustrated relationship with his father and young brother, who he believed his father always preferred. "The image of the boy is very clear to me," he told interviewer Jeff Young decades later." I knew a boy like that, in other words, myself."
For all the prestige of Steinbeck and fame of Kazan, the big news of East of Eden (1955) was Kazan's discovery, a young New York actor named James Dean making, for all intents and purposes, his feature debut in the lead role. Kazan had originally hoped to cast Brando as Cal. It was screenwriter Paul Osborn who, after seeing him on Broadway in a small role in The Immoralist, suggested Dean for the part. Kazan was unimpressed with him as an actor but, as he later wrote in his autobiography, "I called Paul and told him this kid actually was Cal in East of Eden; no sense in looking further or 'reading' him." He sent Dean to meet Steinbeck, who "thought Dean a snotty kid. I said that was irrelevant; wasn't he Cal? John said he sure as hell was, and that was that."
Elia Kazan had been very active in the Group Theater and the Actor's Studio, where Dean himself had been training, and was a proponent of the Stanislavsky "Method," from which the term "method acting" arose. Kazan decided to shy away from Hollywood stars for his young leads and instead cast them out of the Actor's Studio, most notably Richard Davalos, making his feature debut as the "good" brother Aron, and Julie Harris as Aron's girlfriend Abra, with whom Cal is in love. She had earned an Oscar® nomination for The Member of the Wedding (1952), her only previous film appearance, and came away with top billing on the film. "Her face was the most compassionate face of any girl I had ever seen, and I stressed it," he told Michel Ciment in the 1974 interview book Kazan on Kazan. "I contrasted her face and Massey's, which was a piece of wood." Raymond Massey, a stage and screen veteran from a more traditional school of acting, was cast as Cal's father, an almost sanctimonious figure who nonetheless lives up to the letter of his moral convictions, and the contrast in styles helped exaggerate the generational conflict with the looser Method players. Folksinger turned actor Burl Ives was cast as the sheriff, a plainspoken authority figure with a strong sense of justice and a paternal affection for Cal, and Tony Award winner Jo Van Fleet, also from the Actor's Studio, made her screen debut as Kate, the madam of the local brothel in Monterey. Kazan considered another young student of the Actor's Studio, Paul Newman, for the role of Aron, and even made a screen test of the two. Newman's big break, ironically, came playing Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), a role Dean was set to play before his fatal car wreck.
Yet it is James Dean that everyone remembers. Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift had helped popularize method acting in Hollywood, but James Dean brought an entirely new and fresh perspective to it. East of Eden is set in 1917 but Dean feels completely modern and contemporary, a boy not quite comfortable in his body. He's never still, constantly fidgeting or shrugging or pacing. He drops his eyes in uncomfortable moments and slips into giggles when conversations become too personal. In the opening scenes, as he stalks Kate through back alleys to her brothel on the outskirts of town, he runs with his hands jammed into his pockets, as if to stop them from acting on their own. And sure enough, when he takes them out of his pockets while pacing in front of her house, they instinctively pick up a rock and throw it at her window. It's a strikingly articulate portrait of an inarticulate man-boy; you can practically hear his mind whirring just by observing his body language. In many ways, this is the first take on the troubled teen that he immortalized in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
On the set of East of Eden, Dean could be moody and unpredictable, not to mention unprepared. He often didn't know his lines, and even when he did, he would deviate from the script on successive takes. It frustrated Massey to no end and the two clashed constantly. Kazan used their mutual antipathy to help define the screen relationship. "This was an antagonism I didn't try to heal; I aggravated it," he wrote in his autobiography. "The screen was alive with precisely what I wanted: they detested each other." Kazan credits Julie Harris for helping nurture Dean's performance by patiently adjusting her own to his changing takes.
It was Kazan's first color film and his first CinemaScope production. He handles both magnificently. He shoots in longer takes, which gives the film the slower pace of an older age and draws the eye to Dean's restlessness and nervous spontaneity, which stands out against the calm and control of the rest of cast. "His body was much more expressive, actually, in free movement, than Brando's it had so much tension to it," observed Kazan. "Dean had a very vivid body; and I did play a lot with it in long shots." The exteriors set the drama against the expanse of the coast for the Monterey scenes and the backdrop of massive fields ringed by mountains in the Salinas scenes. Bright daylight exteriors of golden fields and blue skies are contrasted with darker interiors and nighttime scenes as the drama turns darker and more troubled. One stunning shot has Dean and Harris almost disappear, swallowed up in the hanging branches of a willow tree as Cal attempts to flee the pain of rejection and Abra tries to calm and console him. When Aron calls him out, Cal emerges fierce and vengeful and Kazan's camera, for the first time, moves to reflect Cal's rage. As Cal pumps away on a rope swing, taunting Aron with hints that their "dead" mother may really be alive, the camera tilts and cants to follow the overpowering energy of his movement. It's like an earthquake in a film that has been, until now, visually stable, and it anticipates just how violently his actions will destroy the foundation of their lives.
East of Eden was an enormous success, and not just for launching the cult of James Dean. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for James Dean, who had died in a car wreck before the nominations were even announced (it was only the second posthumous nomination in Oscar® history, but the first of three for Dean). Only Jo Van Fleet took the gold, however, for Best Supporting Actress.
Producer: Elia Kazan
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Paul Osborn; John Steinbeck (novel "East of Eden")
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Art Direction: Malcolm Bert
Music: Leonard Rosenman
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Cast: Julie Harris (Abra), James Dean (Cal Trask), Raymond Massey (Adam Trask), Burl Ives (Sam the Sheriff), Richard Davalos (Aron Trask), Jo Van Fleet (Kate), Albert Dekker (Will Hamilton), Lois Smith (Anne), Harold Gordon (Gustav Albrecht), Nick Dennis (Rantani).
by Sean Axmaker