ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: East of Eden
WEEK 5- "E"
Nominess: El Mariachi, East of Eden, Empire of the Sun, Eight Men Out, Eve's Bayou
Winner: East of Eden (after a re-voted tie with Eight Men Out)
Background: East of Eden initially earns its acclaim as the first lead role of the legendary James Dean and the only of his three films to be released while he was alive. Past that fact of Hollywood legend, Elia Kazan's directorial effort from 1955 (following his biggest success, On the Waterfront, from the year before) is loosely adapted from John Steinbeck's 1952 novel which draws parallels the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Dean plays the troubled and rebellious son Cal. He competes with his bright and blue chip brother Aron (Richard Davalos) for the affections of his religiously devout and benevolent father Adam (Raymond Massey). Together, they help his father with his fledgling refrigeration start-up in Salinas, California in 1917 before the country's mounting involvement in World War I.
The initial dark cloud that we see with Cal is that he's recently learned that the mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet, in the film's only Oscar-winning performance) he thought was dead and gone is still alive a few towns away. He hops trains and stalkingly seeks her out. Cal is determined to learn more about her and get answers to the painful questions that haunt him. Kate, his mother, is world-weary woman who runs a brothel. A nonconformist to his father's rhetoric, Cal is convinced that he's as "bad" as her and shares more in common with her than him. After his father's business fails, he gets the nerve to ask her for money to begin a bean farm whose profits will surge once the U.S. enters the war and recoup what his father lost. Sure enough, he finds success and attracts the eye and affections of his brother's girlfriend (Julie Harris). Trouble, of course, multiplies from there.
Reaction: 5 STARS-- Angst! Passion! Angst! Vulnerability! Angst! Smolder! Angst! What completely stands above everything else in East of Eden is the incredible performance of James Dean in his feature debut. True to what made Dean the iconic symbol of that era's youth, his troubling and intricate performance as Cal Trask is ripe with the disaffected emotions that made him controversial to the old guard and beloved by the younger generation of his day. In working with director Elia Kazan, a fellow graduate of the famed Actor's Studio and pupil of Lee Strasburg, James took on the "method acting" style of drawing emotions from within for a more realistic character portrayal and appearance in performance.
That style created actual and tangible tension and strife with Richard Davalos and Raymond Massey that played out on and off screen. The result was nothing short of a watershed and rivals the work of his hero Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront) before him. His imitators/contemporaries since, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Ryan Gosling, can't hold a torch to him and Dean's work on East of Eden might be better than his famous Rebel Without a Cause.
The film itself is a fantastic portrayal of family tension and was a well-liked film adaptation by the author Steinbeck himself. Even though the film took place during the onset of America's involvement of World War I, the palpable topics of split families, sibling rivalry, teen angst, religious disconnect, and becoming one's own man echoed to the Baby Boom era of the time. In the polar opposite to the black-and-white shadows of Kazan's own A Streetcar Named Desire, the director presents East of Eden in dramatic color and CinemaScope splendor capturing so much California texture and scale. Restored as it is now on DVD and Blu-ray, the movie looks extraordinary and adds to the quality of the experience. East of Eden is required viewing for cinephiles and completely fits the phrase "they don't make them like this anymore."
LESSON #1: WOMEN LOVE THE "BAD" BOY-- Like the "forbidden fruit," women, for some reason, are attracted to and gravitate to the "bad" boy from time to time. Whether it's the the smolder, the thrills, the defiance, the control, or brash independence, women continue to dig the wrong kind of man, even to this day (Hello, Fifty Shades of Gray). Cal's attraction within this film to turn Abra towards him and away from both Aron and her better judgement is one of many classic examples.
LESSON #2: THE INHERENT ANIMOSITY AND JEALOUSLY AMONG BROTHERS-- I could be more general and say that this lesson applies to all "siblings," but it is different with brothers. They are men that likely have been taught and told to be tough and not show weakness of emotion for most of their life. Therefore, gaining success and respect becomes one of their few streams of actual love. When one brother is constantly judged beside the other, natural animosity and jealousy surface. In East of Eden, with shades of Cain and Abel, Cal and Aron compete for their father's affection, business success, and, later, for the heart of Abra. That competition and tension drive a great deal of the film's consequences and drama.
LESSON #3: THE STRESS OF EARNING AFFECTION-- Stemming from the first lesson, whether he's in jealous competition with Aron or not, Cal constantly strives to earn affection from those around him. He feels alone and lacking connection, despite the fact that his good looks lead to frequent attraction from women. Cal longs to be included, appreciated for who he is, and wants to be looked upon as highly as his brother, especially in his father's eyes.
LESSON #4: THE NEED FOR LEGITIMATE PARENTAL LOVE-- Parental approval is not the same as parental love. Approval tops out at being at peace with the independence of children while love elevates to a level of respect, appreciation, and support. A pat on the back or a nod of approval doesn't beat a hug, an inspiring word or two from the heart, and an acknowledgement of affection. Cal seeks this level of love from the mother he reconnected with and, to a much larger level, to the father who raised him and whom he shares opposite ideals with.