Dir: Elia Kazan
James Dean was a genius. A genius at 24 years old. Had he lived, he might have become a caricature of himself Brando or faded like Welles. But for three movies he was the greatest actor ever.
East of Eden was the first. The Steinbeck novel is perfectly suited to his talents. A single pious father has two sons, one straightlaced and the other wild and unpredictable. Dean's talents are at their peak when he acts completely in character but in a way we could not have expected. Suddent bursts of emotion, walking away from other actors out of the blue, even the way he gets out of a car or plays with something on a table are all so charged with energy. It is method acting at its finest, the complete freedom to act as the character might because the actor has become the character. Since his character in this film, like Rebel Without a Cause, is troubled and unpredictable to begin with, Dean is given a blank canvas on which to paint a masterpiece.
The latent anger and power in his performance makes the moments of tenderness and compassion between father and son all the more rewarding. Steinbeck's story explored sibling rivalry and family almost melodramatically. But Dean and Kazan make the melodrama real. I would normally praise the direction in this sort of movie more, but Dean so totally dominates every scene that the review has to be about him.
I am not overstating this. James Dean was everything that is right about acting. East of Eden is a tour de force example of how allowing the on-screen talent to work their magic can often be the best direction. Only a handful of actors are able to pull that off on their own. Dean was one, maybe the one, and is a true icon of American art.