I take a look at East of Eden, both the film and the details of the production, for Turner Classic Movies, in anticipation of its February showing during its month of Oscar.
For all the prestige of Steinbeck and fame of Kazan, the big news of East of Eden (1955) was Kazan’s discovery, a young New York actor named James Dean making, for all intents and purposes, his feature debut in the lead role. Kazan had originally hoped to cast Brando as Cal. It was screenwriter Paul Osborn who, after seeing him on Broadway in a small role in The Immoralist, suggested Dean for the part. Kazan was unimpressed with him as an actor but, as he later wrote in his autobiography, “I called Paul and told him this kid actually was Cal in East of Eden; no sense in looking further or ‘reading’ him.” He sent Dean to meet Steinbeck, who “thought Dean a snotty kid. I said that was irrelevant; wasn’t he Cal? John said he sure as hell was, and that was that.”
Elia Kazan had been very active in the Group Theater and the Actor’s Studio, where Dean himself had been training, and was a proponent of the Stanislavsky “Method,” from which the term “method acting” arose. Kazan decided to shy away from Hollywood stars for his young leads and instead cast them out of the Actor’s Studio, most notably Richard Davalos, making his feature debut as the “good” brother Aron, and Julie Harris as Aron’s girlfriend Abra, with whom Cal is in love. She had earned an Oscar® nomination for The Member of the Wedding (1952), her only previous film appearance, and came away with top billing on the film. “Her face was the most compassionate face of any girl I had ever seen, and I stressed it,” he told Michel Ciment in the 1974 interview book Kazan on Kazan. “I contrasted her face and Massey’s, which was a piece of wood.” Raymond Massey, a stage and screen veteran from a more traditional school of acting, was cast as Cal’s father, an almost sanctimonious figure who nonetheless lives up to the letter of his moral convictions, and the contrast in styles helped exaggerate the generational conflict with the looser Method players. Folksinger turned actor Burl Ives was cast as the sheriff, a plainspoken authority figure with a strong sense of justice and a paternal affection for Cal, and Tony Award winner Jo Van Fleet, also from the Actor’s Studio, made her screen debut as Kate, the madam of the local brothel in Monterey. Kazan considered another young student of the Actor’s Studio, Paul Newman, for the role of Aron, and even made a screen test of the two. Newman’s big break, ironically, came playing Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), a role Dean was set to play before his fatal car wreck.
Yet it is James Dean that everyone remembers. Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift had helped popularize method acting in Hollywood, but James Dean brought an entirely new and fresh perspective to it. East of Eden is set in 1917 but Dean feels completely modern and contemporary, a boy not quite comfortable in his body. He’s never still, constantly fidgeting or shrugging or pacing. He drops his eyes in uncomfortable moments and slips into giggles when conversations become too personal. In the opening scenes, as he stalks Kate through back alleys to her brothel on the outskirts of town, he runs with his hands jammed into his pockets, as if to stop them from acting on their own. And sure enough, when he takes them out of his pockets while pacing in front of her house, they instinctively pick up a rock and throw it at her window. It’s a strikingly articulate portrait of an inarticulate man-boy; you can practically hear his mind whirring just by observing his body language. In many ways, this is the first take on the troubled teen that he immortalized in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Read the complete piece on TCM here.