Article Title:East of Eden
Author or Credit:Chris Banks
Published on:14th July 2005 - 12:00 pm
Story ID:818
Text:James Dean EAST OF EDEN Dir: Elia Kazan USA, 1955 35mm, 118 mins For those growing up a generation or more after the fact, it's something of a surprise to learn that despite the size of his legend, James Dean made only three films. The first of these was East of Eden, eerily the only one to be released while he was still alive, and freshly revived for the international film festival. Has it aged? Well, unless you count gay director Todd Haynes' excellent Far From Heaven from a few years back, the age of the Cinemascope melodrama is well and truly over. In the 1950's, however, it was in full swing – replete with big performances, big vistas, big colour and big strings. Scenes of Dean walking across a street get the sort of musical treatment reserved today only for exploding buildings, yet Dean is probably the only actor in history who can emerge from such high drama without descending into camp. He has a mesmerising unknowable quality, no doubt amplified by his untimely death in a car crash at 24, but nonetheless it's a unique charisma that, like his great fan Elvis Presley's, has stood the test of time. Although he doesn't look it, Dean seems much older. He's a powder keg of emotion so unpredictable that it would be perfectly plausible for him to hack up half the town with an axe and be petting a kitten afterwards. The story's main theme of family disharmony is the sort of thing intimately dissected these days with subtlety in kitchen-sink dramas by Mike Leigh, but in East of Eden everything is overblown. Dean plays Cal Trask, a troubled boy in small-town World War I America, desperate to win the approval of his father, but he is ignored in favour of his brother Aron, the "good" boy. Dad's a stuffy bible-basher who grows lettuce. Mum is MIA. Dad has led them to believe she is dead. Cal knows the truth, though – she's working in the next town as a madam, and when all is revealed, be prepared for orchestral meltdown and aneurysms before bedtime. Following in the footsteps of Marlon Brando as one of the first Method actors, James Dean's inner struggles were being played out for all the world to see. Sixty years later, modern gay audiences can see precisely what Dean and Brando – both bisexual – were drawing on. Unlike Cary Grant and Rock Hudson, who papered over their homosexuality with endearing yet two-dimensional charisma, Dean put it up on screen. In typical Hollywood fashion, this aspect of his life is still to this day played down or ignored, with euphemisms like "raw masculinity" being attached to reviews of Dean's performances instead. Julie Harris's doe-eyed Abra in East of Eden may be mooning over him, but Dean's scenes with her lack any romantic tension, despite the requirements of the script. She can't see it, though, left to pick up the pieces for Dean's self-destructing Cal like a teary-eyed country girl fag hag. If not for Dean, East of Eden would probably be neatly filed away with Douglas Sirk's melodramas and consigned to a niche of cinema history, but his performance is electrifying, and no amount of hype and cheap knockoffs of his likeness sold at markets and displayed at Burger King can diminish it. Chris Banks - 14th July 2005    
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