Elia Kazan is another director who has a long history with Oscar with the majority of his movies earning at least one nomination including a total of twenty-one nods in the acting categories. Kazan himself triumphed in the Best Director category twice for two films that also went on to win Best Picture; Gentleman’s Agreement and On the Waterfront. Kazan’s follow-up to On the Waterfront was an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden; a film that has gone on to be most famous for introducing cinema-going audiences to James Dean. Kazan gave Dean his big break after seeing him on stage and although he ultimately gave a fantastic performance in the film; the director had to keep a watchful eye on his star during the production.
In what is a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel; Dean plays Cal the more hot-heated son of religiously devout farmer Adam who favours his other, more obedient son Aron. Instead of holding the audience’s hand through a load of exposition, Kazan supplants right in the middle of the story as we see Cal following brothel madam Kate around her home town just outside of Monterey. As the film continues we learn that Kate is actually Cal and Aron’s mother who abandoned them at birth and who Adam had told them had passed away some years prior. It’s clear that his unpredictability is something that Cal has inherited from his mother whilst sensible Aron is much closer to Adam. Caught in the middle is Aron’s girlfriend Abra who initially finds Cal to be weird but later becomes attracted to him after they spend more time together. Cal’s intelligence is also explored through his business acumen and his idea to enter the bean-growing business which takes off when the Americans join World War I. Unfortunately for Cal, Adam isn’t pleased with his son’s new business venture accusing him of war profiteering and driving a wedge further between father and son. Despite their being more trauma ahead for the brothers I was surprised that there was at least some sense of a happy ending in East of Eden even if I found it to be more melodramatic than a lot of Kazan’s other features.
During the first incarnation of Everynominee I watched a lot of Elia Kazan films enjoying all of them especially A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. Both of these movies had a grittiness and realism to them that was rare for films of the time whilst they also included characters that I sympathised with fully. Although East of Eden had a sympathetic lead in Cal, I struggled to care about a lot of the story and the interplay between members of the Trask family. Some of the more interesting scenes came when Cal travelled to Monterey to stalk Kate and especially a scene where he appears while she’s sleeping and tries to initiate a conversation with her. Similarly compelling is their only real interaction where Cal asks his estranged mother for the money he needs to start his bean-growing enterprise. However, I felt a lot of the story involving the love triangle involving the brothers and Abra was handled poorly with the majority of these scenes feeling cliched. Furthermore, I found Leonard Rosenman’s score to be intrusive and ultimately made East of Eden feel like one of the dated technicolor epics of the era which I’ve criticised in the past. Whilst I had issues with the story, I still found Kazan’s direction to be masterful especially in his employment of cinemascope to enhance the drama of several scenes including those that take place at the Trask dinner table. It’s fair to say that East of Eden is still a good-looking film and the design is especially impressive in the scenes in Monterey as well as the pivotal fairground scene where Cal and Abra kiss for the first time.
The most memorable part of East of Eden overall was James Dean who gave an emotionally exhausting performance as the tortured Cal and as a result established himself as the new film star on the block. Dean gave a fully-rounded portrayal of a son who was never quite able to gain his father’s love no matter how hard he tried and through his performance I gained a lot of sympathy for the character of Cal. Although not perfect, the rawness of his performance gave an authenticity to East of Eden which was lacking elsewhere and I personally feel that he deserved that year’s Best Actor Oscar over Ernest Borgnine who won for his portrayal of the titular character in Marty. As well as Kazan and Dean, screenwriter Paul Osborn also earned an Oscar nod however the film’s only win came in the Best Supporting Actress category. Like Dean, Jo Van Fleet was a newcomer to the screen having earned a reputation on the stage although she seemed like an absolute natural during her time in the film as Kate. Knowing she was an Oscar winning prior to watching East of Eden may have made me a little over-critical of her turn in the film but she was fantastic whilst she was on screen. I feel Van Fleet won the Oscar for her powerful interaction with Dean in what was possibly the movie’s best scene however her lack of screen time made me question the decision to honour her that year. Overall, I was a little disappointed with East of Eden especially considering it came from Kazan and is often heralded as one of the best American movies of all time. The overblown music and melodramatic script both let down what could’ve been another intense Kazan movie however I would say the positives outweighed the negatives thanks to its assured direction and its dazzling central performance from the wonderful James Dean.
Next time we conclude our 1955 retrospective with the first of a double bill from a British director who, like Kazan, has had a successful relationship with the academy over the years.