Based off the second half of John Steinbeck’s novel and directed by Elia Kazan, East of Eden is a retelling of Cain and Abel set around the beginning of World War I. The biblical references are easy to notice; Cal and Aron are sons of Adam, competing for their father’s love. What is surprising, and rather fitting, is where Eve plays in this scheme.
Cal (James Dean) believes that he and his twin brother Aron (Richard Davalos) are opposites, good and bad. Aron is the obvious good one, always winning his father’s love and going steady with a sweet girl, Abra (Julie Harris). Cal is self loathing and fixated on the bad he sees in himself. His father, Adam (Raymond Massey), is the most well loved, righteous Christian men in town. Cal concludes that all the bad within him must have come from his mother, who died after giving birth, so he and Aron were told. In his troubled wanderings, Cal finds a businesswoman (Jo Van Fleet), who he finds far too much in common with. His yearning to find where he comes from and win his father’s approval may destroy his family.
Dean portrays a troubled teen perfectly, with plenty of passion and no cliche. He shows curiosity, confusion and self loathing in a way that helps us connect with Cal. He turns Cal into a very sympathetic character, always bringing the audience in, even when it feels like he is pushing away from everything. He brings the pain of feeling unloved by his father to a heartbreaking climax. It’s a role Dean similar to his later film, Rebel Without a Cause, yet Dean not at all the same. Sadly, East of Eden was Dean’s only major film released before his death. His nomination for best lead actor was the Academy’s first posthumous nomination.
Along with Dean’s Oscar nomination were three others for East of Eden. Elia Kazan was nominated for best director and Paul Osborn for best adapted screenplay. Jo Van Fleet won the award for best supporting actress in her role as the secretive business woman who turns out to have quite an impact on Cal’s life.
East of Eden is an essential film of the 1950s. To think that it lost a best picture nomination to Picnic saddens me. The story is compelling and thought provoking. The acting is riveting and the cast works beautifully together. Kazan’s direction is at the same amazing level as his best picture nominated films. When discussing James Dean, it’s a shame not to mention his performance here.
“Man has a choice and it’s a choice that makes him a man.”