James Dean received the first posthumous acting nomination from the Academy Awards for his performance as the troubled Cal in East of Eden, his first major film role. (He would die tragically just a few months after the film was released.) It's a riveting performance, one of the most vulnerable and moving I've ever seen. The film, directed with style and elegance by Elia Kazan, is based on the last quarter of John Steinbeck's sprawling novel. Steinbeck believed the power of storytelling was in its ability to remind us of our own humanity, and when I learned that, it helped me understand why I've loved this movie for so long.
No one is purely good or purely evil in East of Eden. All the characters must come to terms with their ‘dark’ impulses and potential to do harm. It’s about relationships — between parents and children, between brothers, between lovers. It’s about how we hurt each other, even when we don’t mean to. It’s about how we tend to repress the unpleasant things in our lives, and how those things can come back to destroy us. And ultimately, it’s about healing power of forgiveness.
There are some terribly haunting scenes in the film. I am heartbroken when Cal self-destructs after his father (Raymond Massey) refuses his birthday gift, and horrified when Cal takes his naive brother Aron (Richard Davalos) to a brothel to meet their mother for the first time (Jo Van Fleet took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing the estranged mom). There’s a poignant scene shared between Dean and Julie Harris atop a ferris wheel, where their impulses lead to a kiss that betrays their mutual love of Aron — his brother and her lover.
East of Eden is ripe with complex emotion, motivation, and desire. To some extent, surely all films are about humanity, but East of Eden is purposefully so. And there was never an actor better capable of depicting universal pathos than the daring and beguiling James Dean.
Beautifully framed in the super-wide 2.55:1 aspect ratio, with a gorgeous score by Leonard Rosenman.
Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Jo Van Fleet)
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (James Dean), Best Director (Elia Kazan), Best Adapted Screenplay (Paul Osborn)