Friday, September 7, 2007

Review: East of Eden (1955)

A queer woman's review of a queer man's legendary movie.

Review by Yolanda Carrington

Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: James Dean, Richard Davalos, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, Burl Ives
Screenplay: Paul Osborn, John Steinbeck (uncredited)
Format: CinemaScope, WarnerColor
Studio: Warner Bros.
Edition: Two-disc DVD set (Region 1), Warner Home Video, 2005

Back in the day, a kid from North Carolina named Yolanda Carrington was highly skeptical about an actor from Indiana named James Dean. From the time I hit puberty all I ever heard about was the legend of this dude, The Rebel, the guy who set a million hearts on fire with his performances in just three films, and who was gone all too soon from a fatal car accident right when his star was just beginning to shine. From looking at the old film posters and breathtaking publicity shots, it was easy to assume that Mr. Dean was just some pretty boy teen idol, whom white women old enough to be my mamas and grandmas were still pining for after all these years, just like they did with that other slick-headed fifties dude---Elvis Presley. It all seemed to fit in perfectly with the 1950s nostalgia that infected middle-aged and elderly folks in my hometown, the same ones who went out for burgers and shakes at carhop-style joints like Char-Grill and Cook-Out in glossily restored Chevys and Cadillacs.

But then there were the Top 100 Films of All Time specials on CBS from the American Film Institute, where Jimmy Dean was talked about in the same company as Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and all the other très legendary white men of stage and screen. Two of his films---Rebel Without a Cause and Giant---are among the AFI Top 100. In one of these broadcasts, I watched actor Dustin Hoffman become misty-eyed when he reminisced about how Dean's performance as troubled kid Jim Stark in RWC affected the kids of his generation. For Hoffman and for kids like him, Dean had set them on fire---for the first time they saw their real lives as young people reflected on the big screen. In my own adolescence the big stars who set my generation on fire---Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, and the Notorious B.I.G.---had a similar affect on me and my peers. Of course, those three men and us were resting on the shoulders of folks like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, all the Beatles and the Stones, the punks, post-punks and New Wavers, the South Bronx legends who created hip-hop, Kerouac and the Beat writers, and Messrs Dean and Presley and their followers.

In his short life and career, Dean made eight films and starred in three: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant. Of these three, East of Eden is my favorite film. But my favorite performance of Jimmy's is his turn as the alcoholic, racist nouveau riche oilman Jett Rink in Giant (an uneven and overly long film co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson). In a time when public consciousness of both white supremacy and substance abuse was extremely limited, Jimmy Dean brought out all the contradictions in Jett's character---a poor white man looked down on by the wealthy Texas rancher class who drowns his insecurities in liquor and projects his own vicious self-hatred onto the Mexican American community. Indeed, Jimmy gives a masterfully dialectical performance as Jett---he's every bit the poor white man that Bob Dylan sang about nine years later in "Only a Pawn in Their Game." But today, we're here to talk about Dean's first starring movie, East of Eden.

East of Eden is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath). Like its literary predecessor, the film EOE is set in Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas Valley, California, and like the book, it's a play on the Cain and Abel story in the Bible. Director Elia Kazan focuses his dramatization on the last ninety or so pages of the book, set during the World War I era, which is concerned with the saga of the three-man Trask household, father Adam and his two young adult sons. Cal (Dean) is a young man wanting to know who he is. He feels part of his being missing---the missing piece tied somehow to the mother who he and his brother Aron (Davalos) have believed to be dead. Their father Adam Trask (Massey) told them that their mother died when they were young children. Yet somehow, Cal not only knows that his mother (Van Fleet) is very much alive, but that she's a big-time brothel-keeper the next town over in Monterey. Just how he figured this out is not revealed in the movie.

Cal (Dean) walking with Mama Kate (Van Fleet)

Cal is the so-called "bad" seed of the two Trask brothers. Cal's wanderlust, angst, boredom, and impestuousness arouse the ire of disappointment from Daddy Trask. Daddy fears that Cal is headed down the wrong path, and may be spiritually ruined in the same way that his mother was. By contrast, Aron represents all that a father would want from his son---well-behaved, honest, decent, hard-working, God-fearing, and responsible. He is on the right track to being a good, upstanding citizen, demonstrated by his intention to marry his sweetheart Abra (Harris), a sweet nurturing young woman from a prominent family. Aron envisions Abra as a loving, comforting wife and mother, that soft pillow of wifely goodness that every heterosexist family man dreams of coming home to. It wouldn't be a stretch to assume that Aron's daydream of Abra's future maternity comes from an unrequited desire for his lost mother.

Caught between two brothers (Davalos, Harris, and Dean).

As for Sister Abra, there is a hell of a lot more to her than meets the eye. (Ain't it always that way, ladies?) Because of her own strained family situation, she has a deep insight into the ways that family members can hurt and be hurt by each other. She also recognizes the deep complexity of a human being that is Cal Trask, seeing beyond his bad-boy persona/reputation and reaching out to the thoughful, intelligent man that lies underneath. She feels drawn to Cal by some intangible psychic bond, a powerful energy that ain't nowhere to be found in her relationship with upstanding citizen Aron. As she and Cal grow closer together, she becomes ever more determined to help him repair his strained relationship with Daddy Trask.

Daddy Adam is a hard-working, God-fearing man who has tried to live right, and to raise his sons in the word of the Holy Bible. Daddy Trask has a very static either/or view of the world, what is right and wrong and the correct way for a man to live a good, decent life. It's a mindset that establishes impossible expectations for himself and his sons. The unbearable tension in his relationship with Cal comes from the fear that many a parent has felt for her child---that she or he will make a big mistake and fall into a place where she can't come back from. Cal has felt this fear from Daddy Trask his entire life, and Daddy's fears for him and his spiritual welfare have convinced him that he is a "bad" son, an irredeemable lout predestined to be a sinner.

Daddy Trask (Massey) looks out over the horizon.

When Daddy Trask loses a substantial amount of money in a vegetable shipping venture, Cal sees a chance to redeem himself in his father's eyes. He embarks on a plan to earn back every penny that Daddy Trask has lost in the business failure. Of course, we in the audience can recognize that this plan of Cal's isn't necessary---the only thing that Daddy wants from Cal is the honor of a good, decent life lived. But here's the question: what constitutes a good, decent life? Financial success? A happy marriage with kids? Dedicated worship of God and regular church attendance? What standard of honorable manhood does Daddy Trask have? And what kind of man should Cal be?

Kate, the long-lost mama of the Brothers Trask, is a highly successful pimp and saloon-owner in fast-track Monterey, fifteen miles and millions of light years from verdant, idyllic Salinas. Her clients include top dogs in government and business, who sneak in at night, while she "walks through the front door in the daytime," in her own words. She broke free from Daddy Trask because she felt he was trying to tie her down as a wife and mother, to isolate her in Victorian domesticity on a Salinas ranch. Her desire to live independent of wifely/maternal expectations, to acquire power and independence on her own terms, is seen as the Ultimate Sin by both fellow characters and audience members alike. Indeed, more than a few film critics and even co-stars of EOE have referred to Van Fleet's character as a prostitute, rather than a pimp and brothel-owner. Granted, the Kate character in Steinbeck's book begins as a sex worker before taking over the brothel from the previous owner, but there is no indication of Kate having turned a trick in the film. No, any woman who abandons the respectable life of husband, home, and kids for easy money must be some kind of prostitute. Why is a woman who displays any kind of worldly ambition automatically seen as a whore?

In contrast to Daddy Trask, Mama Kate is everything that he is not---streetwise, business-savvy, full of personal desire and ambition. She knows what the public wants and she knows how to deliver, and she won't let the fact that she is a wife and mother stand in her way. Rather than tell his sons this hard truth, Daddy convinces his sons that this untameable, disobedient woman died when they were babies. Just as her sons are the embodiment of Cain and Abel, Kate is the personification of Eve, the woman tempted by the riches and ambition of Satan who forsakes the innocence of Eden. In short, she is everything a good white woman of the time was NOT supposed to be, and in my 2007 eyes, Kate emerges as a distinctly feminist---albeit contradictory---character, an outcome I'm sure neither Steinbeck, Osborn, nor Kazan intended.

The tension between good son Aron and bad son Cal inevitably comes to a head in the end. In a fit of rage and jealously at the deepening intimacy between Abra and Cal, Aron arrogantly denounces Cal as no-good. In a desire for revenge, Cal introduces Aron to Kate, the bad mother that the good son has long believed to be dead. Not surprisingly, Aron's entire sense of self is shattered, and he leaves home to join the Great War in Europe, a war he swore he'd never fight. What ensues afterward changes the dynamics between the two remaining Trask men, for the better. Recognizing that they both love and need each other, father and son reach out to each other, in one of the most poignant reconciliations I've ever seen in a feature film. In East of Eden, the Prodigal Son comes home, straight into the arms of his father.

How do I feel about Jimmy Dean now? Well, needless to say, I ain't skeptical of him anymore. But I am deeply sad. Tragedy happens in life, as we all know. Many young people, talented, caring, and loving, have fallen before their time. James Dean just happened to be one of them. None of us knows when we're gonna leave this Earth, how old we will be or what we will have accomplished when that day comes. But I hope that when that day comes for me, I would have lived my life to the fullest, as Jimmy had. What a hell of an example for a young queer man to lay down.


AradhanaD said...

you are going through the classic hunky phase of movie-watching aren't ya?


Yolanda Carrington said...

Okay AD---just because I'm talking about and keep looking at pictures of Jimmy Dean and young Brando doesn't mean I'm going through a hunky phase. *wink*

The Menstruator said...

Listen, I saw this was affiliated somehow with the feminist reprise the blog.
I'd love to get a message to that person.
Firstly, East of Eden, better book, no?
I'm incredibly impressed with the writing on the feminist reprise blog, brought to tears even. Please pass that along?

AradhanaD said...
Link to feminist reprise -- and yes, Amy writes wonderfully