Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The Tear-Jerker: East of Eden
Folks, there’s a reason James Dean has become a cultural icon: he was a damn good actor. Yes, Dean had some of the best looks in movie history. He also came to embody the angst of the early Baby Boomer generation thanks to his neurotic performances in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden.
The latter scored Dean his first Oscar nomination, awarded following his tragic death in an auto accident. The story, taken from John Steinbeck’s novel, follows the rivalry between two brothers in a California town. Caleb (Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos) compete for their father, Adam’s (Raymond Massey) affections. Aron devotes himself to Christianity, while Caleb focuses more on building a career as a farmer, especially after Adam loses a fortune in a business blunder. Aron also begins to court the beautiful Abra (Julie Harris), who finds herself increasingly drawn to Cal. Ever resentful of Adam and Aron’s relationship, Cal also begins to research the life of his long-dead mother…only to discover she’s still alive.
Needless to say, drama ensues.
Dean and Harris both give magnificent performances here, the former radiating the angst and resentment that made him into a cultural icon. As with Rebel Without a Cause, he embodies a character at odds with an older, affectionless generation. No wonder he became an icon for the Baby Boomers. Harris, an actress underused by Hollywood, matches him every step of the way with her vulnerability, and the way she plays her increasing love for her boyfriend’s brother. It helps, of course, that director Elia Kazan became an early champion of Method Acting: the unaffected performances by the cast as a whole make the story all the more engrossing.
If James Dean specialized in playing angsty characters, we have a feeling why. As a bisexual man, Dean had to keep his affair with screenwriter William Bast a secret; Bast himself would not even speak of it until 2006, more than 50 years after Dean’s death. Dean also told other friends–including Elizabeth Taylor--that he’d had affairs with other men as well. In the 1950s, homophobia hit a fever pitch. The Lavender Scare ran concurrent with the Red Scare. No doubt he would have felt less shame and frustration had he been able to date men without the fear of having his life ruined.
East of Eden ranks as one of the great American movies, and acting doesn’t get much better than what James Dean and Julie Harris achieve here. If we have one reservation about the film, it’s director Kazan. While we cannot deny his power as a filmmaker, he ratted out his friends and associates to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. That makes watching his movies–especially one like this, that preoccupies itself with Americana–very uncomfortable. Still, we recommend East of Eden for its performances, thrilling family drama, and CinemaScope widescreen visuals. Kazan may have been an ugly human being. Ironic then that he made a movie so beautiful.
Streams on HBO Max, Amazon, Apple TV, & VUDU.