As intentional as Kazan gets with his direction of James Dean, he’s orders of magnitude more intentional on Julie Harris. Harris is top-billed and the natural protagonist, but Dean’s a supernova. He’s the lead, he’s the star, he’s dynamite, a press agent’s dream. Only he’s got a really quiet part for most of the movie; he’s an extrovert we only ever get to see as an introvert because the movie’s from 1955 (and about 1917) and when he’s not being a top-notch farmhand, he’s bedding every Hispanic girl in town. The film manages to find some honesty in how racism is playing a factor, but it can’t exactly address it.
It’s not just it’s 1955… men are men, after all. And East of Eden is a gloriously turgid mix of toxic masculinity, chauvinism (in both senses), and some kind of religiosity. The religiosity is mostly in the ground situation and revealed backstory; it’s important and it informs everything, but more in how it protects Dean’s twin brother, Richard Davalos, and their father, Raymond Massey, from ever having to take personal responsibility. Massey’s been a single dad since they were born—their mother died in childbirth, he told them—and he’s parented with the Bible. Except Massey’s a very kind, empathetic, curious person—Massey’s performance is startling in its earnestness and warmth, even when he’s being a complete jackass to Dean—so he’s had to arrange his life a certain way. It works with Davalos, who models the piety of his widower father as a way to navigate through as well—masking his core-deep insecurities and jealousies—but not with Dean. Because Dean’s the same as Massey, only Massey wants Dean to be like dear departed mother, Jo Van Fleet.
Who, it turns out, lives just a train ride away.
Van Fleet is a successful madam in the shitty coastal town, while Massey and sons live in the more Christian in-land farming community, where you can meet a nice girl like Harris.
The film opens with Dean following Van Fleet home, where she sends out Timothy Carey to deal with the lurking teen. Carey might be looped; he’s uncredited and Eden’s full of looped audio (quite obviously because Kazan wanted something just right; the film’s exquisite in its precision); either way he’s awesome. He runs Dean off, with some exposition to at least foreshadow and establish this plot line with Dean and Van Fleet. It’s a great sequence.
Once Dean’s back on the right side of the mountains, the film introduces Davalos and Harris. They’re a morally upstanding teenage couple, very chaste, very appropriate; Harris finds Dean concerning—so peculiar he’s scary—while Davalos just thinks his twin is a hilarious goof, at most a prankster.
Davalos and Dean is Eden’s most complicated relationship and the one the film gives the least amount of time. The film’s about Dean getting up the courage to confront Van Fleet, but more about how the many-layered revelation of Van Fleet affects Dean’s relationship with Massey. And, unintentionally, Davalos and Harris. They become collateral damage in this brewing family drama no one realized was brewing. Van Fleet’s the catalyst for the explosion, which is appropriate as she’s the one who got it brewing in the first place.
At least, the way the men see it.
Once Dean has a heart-to-heart about his parents with sheriff Burl Ives (who’s phenomenal in this picture), he starts trying to play the good son. And those attempts—the successes of those attempts—are going to bring ruin to everyone. Some more ruined than others. And there’s enough ruination going around it’s not all Dean’s fault. He is, after all, a sixteen or seventeen year-old kid who has a lot going on in his life and the easy access to alcohol. Massey’s good and evil dichotomy runs Dean and Davalos’s lives, with Harris’s outsider perspective and questioning starting to make Dean ask some questions. In conjunction with the rest of the world making Dean ask some questions too.
War’s almost on and Dean has a profiteers take on it. Davalos and Massey are devout pacifists, but Dean’s a mercenary. Only he’s not because he doesn’t understand what’s going on because he’s a kid. He’s a drinker and a fighter and a lover, but he’s still a kid, something Van Fleet sees in him and is willing to help him too. The relationship with Dean and Van Fleet, Dean and businessman Albert Dekker, with sheriff Ives, they’re all helping push his character development. Right up until we remember Adam had two sons (literally, of course, Adam is Massey’s character’s name) and then everything explodes. Even though we’ve only ever seen Davalos from Dean’s perspective and in Dean’s scenes… he’s had his own subplots brewing and boom.
The third act is then this tightly constrained melodrama where Kazan does everything he can to max out the intensity without getting too loud. And it’s where that direction of Harris gets so important.
Harris has figured out what’s going on with this family and she knows how to fix it but she has to get Dean, Davalos, and Massey to do that work. So it’s not just Dean’s going to be a golden god and get all the camera’s attention, it’s also the story doing it too. It’s treating Harris as a function.
Kazan doesn’t let it.
He, cinematographer Ted D. McCord, and editor Owen Marks figure out this way to showcase Harris, especially in the second half, when it becomes obvious she ought to be the protagonist of this story. Except men.
Harris is great. Dean is singular. No one’s made the adjective. Massey’s great. Ives, Van Fleet, Dekker. Davalos is fine. He functions. Lot of help from Kazan. With everyone else, it’s Kazan figuring out how to best convey his actors’ performances; with Davalos… he’s making it work.
Lois Smith is excellent in a small part.
Technically, it’s almost perfect. There’s a repeated shot of Dean riding the train back to the bad town two scenes and a few hours after we saw it used for him coming home to the good town; it’s now night, the shot’s day. It’s bewildering. Kazan and crew make up for it. He and McCord do a lot with camera angles, including some really awesome showy stuff; the repeat footage gets a pass.
And Paul Osborn’s script. Like, East of Eden has got to be a pain to adapt, but Osborn finds a chunk of the story (presumably the end, I’ve never gotten through it) and writes this great family drama; when I said earlier Kazan had to defend Harris against the script, it’s not Osborn working against her even, it’s the plot. Osborn makes sure Harris has excellent material. It wouldn’t work otherwise.
It’s just not easy to contend with Dean and his presence in the film, visually onscreen and then in general with the plot. He’s so exceptionally good and the film’s able to do so much more because it can leverage him.
East of Eden’s exceptional. I think I’d forgotten just how exceptional.