Directed By: Elia Kazan
Starring: James Dean, Raymond Massey, Julie Harris
Tag line: "The Searing Classic of Paradise Lost!"
Trivia: James Dean and Paul Newman screen tested together for the roles of the siblings in this film. Only Dean was cast.
One of the first film-related books I ever bought was titled “Rating the Movie Stars”, published by the editors of Consumer Guide in 1983. In a nutshell, this book reviewed the careers of hundreds of Hollywood personalities by assigning star ratings, ranging fro zero to four, to each of their performances, then totaling them up to get an overall average. I agreed with some of their scores (James Cagney’s overall rating of 3.51 ranked him among the top 25 performers of all-time), disagreed with others (Marlon Brando, one of my favorite actors, received a paltry 2.55). Amazingly, there were three who scored a perfect 4.0. The first was Eddie Murphy, who, at the time the book was published, had made only two films, 48 Hrs and Trading Places. The same can be said for the second perfect performer, Ben Kinglsey, who by 1983 had appeared in Gandhi and Betrayal. The third to achieve perfection was James Dean, whose tragic death in 1955 at the age of 24 assured he would never appear in more than three. East of Eden was his first.
California farmer Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) has two sons: Aron (Richard Davalos) and Cal (James Dean). Aron is obedient, and does everything in his power to ease his father’s burdens, whereas Cal seems to find nothing but trouble everywhere he goes. There are those who see goodness in Cal, including the town's sheriff (Burl Ives) and Aron’s girlfriend, Abra (Julie Harris), but, knowing his second son’s history, Adam is reluctant to trust Cal. Feeling he may never measure up to his brother, Cal drifts through life as a loner, and along the way makes a startling discovery that, if revealed, will shake his family to its very foundation.
To see his performance in East of Eden is to know why James Dean is still considered a master of the craft. As the story opens, Dean’s Cal is quietly following a woman named Kate (Jo Van Fleet) through the streets of Monterrey. We will eventually learn that Cal believes Kate, who manages a local brothel, is really his mother, a woman his father claimed died when he and Aron were babies. After Kate disappears into a house, Cal continues to hang around outside, practicing to himself what he would say to her should he ever get the chance. Wanting to approach her, yet unsure how to do so, the pressure soon becomes too much for the young man to bear. Angry and confused, Cal picks up a rock and throws it at the house, breaking a window. Considered the ‘bad son’ by his father, Cal can't help but wonder if his mother might hold the secret as to why he acts as he does. Both wanting to know the truth and fearing the answer, the turmoil in Cal’s soul runs deep, and Dean never once falters in bringing this conflict to the surface.
Over the years, James Dean’s legacy has risen to a level befitting an American icon. With such a short yet explosive career in films (along with East of Eden, he appeared in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and George Steven’s Giant), Dean’s death has led to decades of questions. Would a performance in a 4th film have been as powerful as his first three? How about his 10th film? His 20th? Obviously, these are questions that can never be answered. Yet with the brilliance he did manage to leave behind, I feel it's less fitting to pose such questions than it is to mourn the fact we will never know.
THE ATTACHED VIDEO IS A B&W SCREEN TEST FOR EAST OF EDEN WITH JAMES DEAN AND PAUL NEWMAN. CLIPS FROM THE FILM ARE NOT AVAILABLE TO POST.