Friday, 12 March 2010

You Have No Repentance! You're Bad!

Oh, James Dean. I would sit here and weep for you, would it not seem absurd to weep for someone who died a solid thirty years before I was even born. So I will weep for you with words instead.

East Of Eden, by Elia Kazan, was Dean's first of three major motion picture appearances, netting him his first of two posthumous Oscar nominations for Best Actor, and indeed the first posthumous Oscar nomination ever. He followed on with the acclaimed Rebel Without A Cause and his final performance in Giant. He received the nomination for playing Cal, son of Adam (Raymond Massey) and brother of Aron (Richard Davalos.) With a staunchly religious father, Cal is the black sheep of the family, unable to do good in the eyes of his father, vastly different from his brother who shines with his family allegiance and with his blossoming relationship to Abra (Julie Harris), loved by Adam.

Adam has an entrepreneurial plan to harness the burgeoning world of refrigeration in the shipping of lettuces from their home on the Californian coast across the country, betting pretty much everything he is worth on its success. When it doesn't succeed, an outcome accepted stoically by Adam, Cal plans to invest in the growing of beans in the pre-WWII market, banking on America joining the war, therefore pushing the price of beans skyhigh, netting him a tidy profit that he can return to his father in the hope of receiving the love and respect he so craves. To finance his entry into the agricultural market he goes to his mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet), who Cal and Aron have been brought up believing is dead, but whom Cal has recently discovered is alive and well, running a brothel in the neighbouring town of Monterey. She agrees to co-investing with him, financing his involvement, on the understanding that her existence remains a secret out of respect to Adam.

With Cal's sudden change into a good son, Adam is impressed and Cal and Abra start developing a close relationship, noticed and not particularly liked by Aron. Abra and Cal plan a surprise birthday party for Adam, where Cal plans on giving the money to his father, but Aron trumps him by announcing his engagement to Abra, something that takes both Cal and Abra by surprise, especially considering their growing attraction to each other. Adam rejects Cal's offer of money, accusing him of war profiteering, something that Cal sees as another rejection from his father, this one all the more painful due to the effort, thought, time and risk he put into it. Abra follows Cal as he runs from the house, in turn followed by Aron, who orders Cal to stay away from his fiance. Devastated and furious, Cal takes Aron into Monterey, where he introduces his brother to their mother, throwing the door closed behind them.

Cal returns home alone, bearing the news of where Aron is at that time to his father. Shortly the sheriff arrives to alert the family to the fact that Aron has drunkenly enlisted in the army to go off and join the war that Cal has profited off, with his train leaving early the next morning. The shock of this causes Adam to suffer a stroke, leaving his life touch and go in the balance.

It is a beautiful story of two very different father and son relationships told in the same family, where closeness is apparent, but where vast chasms of disappointment and hostility run deep. Dean's performance gives Cal an incredible depth, offering up his continual pain at the perceived rejection of his father in favour of his brother, but also giving us his optimistic fervour, his unsuppressed desire to win over his father no matter what the cost. The performances of his supports are somewhat less rounded, though effective as somewhat one-dimensional catalysts for the progression of Cal onwards. While Harris as Abra is probably the weakest point, never truly delving into what her character is feeling, Van Fleet as their weary mother with so many secrets allows us into her every thought with the most subtle movements and affectations, making her one of the more memorable characters without much time on screen at all, netting her a deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Kazan, probably best known for his work bringing Marlon Brando his first Oscar nomination and later his first win for his two powerhouse performances in A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront respectively, pulls it out again with the watershed that was Dean's performance. He tender handling of the delicate father/son relationships shown here also delve into a world not often seen on film, that of the distance between men and the hurt that can cause.

An excellent film, stopping just short of extraordinary. 4.5 stars.

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