Elia "Sledgehammer" Kazan's wildly uneven East of Eden inaugurated the 50-year-old James Dean cult. It hasn't been on video in at least 10 years, and it has never been available in its full widescreen format, so its appearance on DVD is something of an event. Kazan took the last 80 pages or so of John Steinbeck's novel and fashioned his own distinctly overheated variant on the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel. Subtle it ain't. It's all about a son who wants his father's love; in simplistic '50s fashion, we have "Daddy loves me, so I'm good" and "Daddy doesn't love me, so I'm bad." This unfortunate naïveté, founded in psychoanalysis and based on blaming parents for everything, persists to this day.
Kazan's rap as a McCarthy stool pigeon has not dimmed his reputation as a filmmaker. He was one of the most popular and sought-after film and theater directors of the '50s, but his big movies of the time (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Splendor in the Grass) haven't held up. He didn't have much of a visual sense, and the careful off-kilter framing in East of Eden, at last seen in its original aspect ratio, is more decorative than expressive. The camerawork is just as flashy and unfelt as some of the performances (and that goes double for Leonard Rosenman's pseudo-Stravinsky score). Even viewers who acknowledge Kazan's lack of visual imagination usually concede that nobody got better performances out of actors, but this last vestige of his reputation is in real need of examination.
Actors often ignorantly speak of unsuccessful pre-1950 performances as "so pre-Brando." This misses two important points: first, great acting is great acting regardless of its time period. Lillian Gish's performances from the 1910s still have startling immediacy, and in the '30s James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck were both natural and more than natural. The second thing, almost never acknowledged, is that the early work of Marlon Brando, Kazan's protegee, has dated. Watching him in Streetcar now is akin to taking part in an archeological dig: his fabled naturalism is utterly technical and tricksy.
Which brings us to James Dean in East of Eden. Dean has outstripped even Brando in iconographical status, and there's a reason for that: he was a crazed exhibitionist who, in the last few years of his life, was almost always in front of a camera. It is in still photos that the Dean legend is most potent and most understandable (he has this in common with Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley). His cool vibe still works in photo books and on T-shirts, on mugs and mousepads. But in East of Eden he's doing a Brando imitation deepened by his own aggressive need to charm every man, woman, child, and dog around him. Dean even tries to charm plants: Hoping to raise a bean crop to help his financially insolvent father (Raymond Massey), Dean does a dance around the crops and talks to them as if they were a lover. His miming of vulnerability is hair-raisingly calculated.
If you turn the sound down on East of Eden (and, by all means, do), you'll see why Dean is a legend. Physically he's a very original actor. He crouches, slouches, throws himself to the ground, throws his head back in agony or ecstasy. Radioactively sexy, Dean is also a grotesque—a weird mixture of Frankenstein's monster and the prettiest of pouting pretty boys. But whenever he talks, he's doing his extravagantly mannered idea of Brando: taking pauses for no reason, hesitating over words, repeating words, scratching himself, pulling his ear, mumbling. Meant to be naturalistic, his performance here seems incredibly self-conscious, even in the famous moment when he tries to give his father money and explodes in frightening, far-out grief.
Dean is so lost in his own acted-out neuroses that he forces Julie Harris, his gifted, lyrical leading lady, to mop up his excess in scene after scene, which she does successfully, especially in their lengthy jaunt through an amusement park. But even her sensitive appreciation of Dean cannot make us interested in him or his monstrously immature character past a certain point. Finally, even she has had enough; in the last scene, she asks him, "Are you going to cry for the rest of your life?" with a touch of exasperation.
Dean's scenes with Massey play out like a much less inspired version of Kazan's Vivien Leigh/Brando dichotomy in Streetcar. Kazan sets up the older performer (Massey and Leigh) as the hollow, fussy standard bearer, while his young Turks (Brando and Dean) wear tight clothes and deploy an arsenal of Method mannerisms in order to sexily sneer at the establishment. It all finally seems to have more to do with acting than with anything else the movies are supposed to be about. A whole subplot in East of Eden about World War I and prejudice against Germans is especially tin-eared and crude.
Kazan's direction of Jo Van Fleet, who won a supporting actress Oscar as Dean's long-gone madam mother, points up the director's schizophrenic mix of styles. Van Fleet is compelling in her scenes with Dean, rough-edged, sentimental, filled with bitter humor. Dean has come to ask her for money for his bean venture. When she realizes that her money is meant to help Dean's father, Van Fleet is memorable when she points out how funny it is that her ill-gotten gains are going to help her self-righteous ex-husband. "If you don't think that's funny, you better not go to college," she says (a resonant non sequitur). But Van Fleet, good as she is, is stagy, too. Her performance shows that Kazan was a theater director above all. He did change American acting, but his achievement is more a historical footnote than a still-viable artistic statement.