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The Interlude: The Genius of Elia Kazan: East of Eden

By Michael Moriarty
web posted February 8, 2016

Elia KazanOur paths, those of Mr. Elia Kazan and myself, only crossed once really. He invited me to attend his class at the Actor's Studio. I had suddenly become famous as an actor, winning a Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award and a Theatre World Award in the 1973-74 Broadway season, playing the most shamelessly homosexual young man that Broadway had ever seen up to then.

The play? John Hopkins' Find Your Way Home.

As some of my readers may already know, the Actor's Studio and the specifically American tradition of intense realism out of which The Actors' Studio grew, owed most of its depth and strength to its predecessor: The Group Theater.

American realism, at least my experiences with a few of its practicing legends such as Lee Strasberg, Cheryl Crawford and Harold Clurman, had turned "The Truth", for actors particularly, into a religion.

Little did I,
This overnight newcomer to stardom,
 know
 that what Elia Kazan had invited me to attend
was a kind of ambush.

Many in the collection of people at the Actor's Studio had been brought there with the promise that, indeed, Michael Moriarty would be showing up.

It was fairly obvious, after my arrival, that this encounter with a number of very angry homosexuals was the real reason for Mr. Kazan's invitation. The undeniably great director was known, by all the actors who worked with him, to test everyone in many ways and to test them at all times.

This experience, though I did not know it at the time, was my failed audition for Elia Kazan.

By then, in the late winter of 1973-74, gossip had apparently convinced the actual gay community of New York that I was certainly not a known member of their fraternity. In short, Michael Moriarty had deprived a real and unquestionably gay actor of not only a job but also the opportunity for that openly gay actor winning a Tony Award.

After the spokesperson for a few rather vociferous supporters had voiced his obviously prepared protest to me personally, I honestly didn't know what to say and whatever I did say I don't remember.

I was actually in mild shock.

I am sure Mr. Kazan had left many a young actor… and, of course, a few old school actors like myself, in a deeply bewildered pain.

I obviously blathered most briefly some kind of response and, after that, I have gone blank as to what the rest of my visit consisted of.

It was not the most auspicious of encounters with one of… if not the greatest theater and film director of not only America but, I suspect, of the entire English-Speaking World.

After having just seen, for at least the 20th time, my favorite display of the Kazan genius, East of Eden, I feel quite driven to "forgive" the directing giant for his leaving me in the dark. His most ungentlemanly way of not letting me know beforehand the kind of bitter protest I was about to face.

"Forgiveness" is the culminating theme and most powerfully indelible climax to what is, as I've already said, perhaps one of, if not the first in my personal list of "TEN MOST PERFECT FILMS".

In other words, even the seeming flaws within East of Eden are to the work's total benefit.

Steinbeck's initial vision is so huge, encompassing thousands of years of human history, from the creation of the Judeo-Christian Bible, its Book of Genesis…  and the subsequent Western Civilization, the entire morality of which arose from that Tree in the Garden of Eden… right up to the jarring suddenness in which the 20th Century found itself in a World War I… all of that and, in addition, a staggering drama of Biblical symbols in between… all of that is encompassed within East of Eden

Kazan's vision of Steinbeck's masterpiece is, within the audience's soulful reception, as vast but also equally as obsessed with detail. That is the common denominator in the combined genius of both Steinbeck and Kazan: "obsession with detail".

The details of this infinitely symbolic novel, the images that Kazan chose to concentrate on were the richly allusive ones. The sights that swiftly conveyed its early 20th century setting, the days and weeks preceding World War I… they also, rather like the workings of our subconscious, circle all the way back to the Book of Genesis and the Garden of Eden.

The Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil?

It suddenly appears as a low hanging willow in a stretch of a hauntingly shadowy lawn whereon the evil decisions by the benighted son, Cal, executed by James Dean with all the genius of his own, deliberately self-conscious mannerisms… his tortured performance is the very unmatchable flame he inflicts upon his character's victims.

What's questionable in James Dean's acting is everything that is mouth-gapingly perfect for the character of Cal.

The entire film is seen, for the most part, through the eyes of the James Dean character.

The anti-hero.

Yes.

The Rebel Without A Cause.

Both Dean characters in both East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause afflicted with "A Father Problem".

What leaves Rebel Without a Cause in its relatively minor category, when compared to East of Eden, is the depth and size of the latter's Biblical themes!

All of Humanity's Goodness.

All of Humanity's Evil.

And all of Humanity's growing gift of Forgiveness.

The film's musical score by Leonard Rosenman!!!!!!!

Its formula is simple but its effect upon us is, after all my viewings and close listening's, immeasurable

The Overture drops us immediately into James Dean's inner nightmare as the dark and benighted lesser son of a righteous man of the Bible.

It is truly a perfect wake-up call for what we in the audience are about to face.

A PERFECT FILM
 ABOUT
HUMAN HELPLESSNESS

We then hear the lovely main theme as the credits are rolling.

It is the longed-for reconciliation between the Cain figure of James Dean and the by-the-end-of-the-film, the tragically afflicted Adam, father of both Cain and Abel, perfectly performed by Raymond Massey. An actor from an older school of acting than that taught to James Dean in the Actor's Studio.

There are stories about Raymond Massey's inability to deal gracefully with the antics of James Dean because, indeed, James Dean was no member of that older school of acting.

He was apparently the role of Cal… 24 hours a day.

With those two characters, Cal/Cain and his father Adam?!

We have the central conflict of not only the novel and the film, but the Bible's Book of Genesis 4 as well.

Despite many historical appearances, Good and Evil have not changed for thousands of years.

Not in millenniums have Good and Evil had their fingerprints or their DNA altered in any way.

This recognition from an audience is when the power of the Kazan masterpiece, East of Eden, begins to not only hold you in its thrall but remain with you till the very last day of your own life.

It is then that the rest of the cast begins to hold their positions of vital importance in what is, by the final moments of its story, an epic tale.

Burl Ives!!

As Sam the sheriff!!

Both an exceptional actor and American folk singer, Ives walks on a Kazan movie set with all the credentials required both as a craftsman and an increasingly revered American legend.

He's not only the symbol of true justice but God's compassion as well.

And speaking of Compassion?!

The divine human being and flawless artist, Julie Harris, flies into the life of James Dean's Cal as the sublime combination of both God's angel and the Earth's transparent awakening of not only love for Cal but, for her character particularly, a disturbing lust for Cal as well.

Of all the great performances in East of Eden, hers is my favorite!

Why?

I've been madly in love with Julie Harris ever since I saw her with the magnificent Ethel Waters in Member of the Wedding.

She really hasn't changed from what she has always been: a shockingly transparent perfection. The soul-shaking essence of human need, longing, yearning and simple human Truth.

Then there is Jo Van Fleet!!

The mother of both Cal and Aron Trask.

And how powerfully she is introduced.

A whore-house Madam, dressed as if, like a figure out of Chekov, in mourning for her life!

The dark figure, clad all in black, is seen in long shot walking to and from her whore-house and her bank.

While depositing her "ill-gotten gains", she feels insulted by the bank teller's admiration for the profitable "business" she's in.

Nothing is hurried about the telling of this story.

It takes quite some time for Cal to pierce the protective covering his estranged mother has wrapped herself in, and get her to admit her marriage to Cal's father Adam… and her motherhood. Her profound connectedness to both Cal and his brother Aron.

Then her having to deal with Cal's plan for reconciliation with his father.

That is when Albert Dekker comes in.

The perfect actor to play Will Hamilton.

He fills out the POV, the Point of View of the bank teller.

Joe Van Fleet's "Kate" is to be admired for her realism!

Together, Cal and Will Hamilton plan a successfully profitable farming strategy for growing beans.

However, in the eyes of Cal's father, Adam Trask?!

"Ill-gotten gains, exactly like those of Kate, his former wife."

Why?

The beans are shamelessly producing profits from the soaring food prices exploding out of the prospects for World War I.

Adam's rejection of Cal's efforts to help his father out of debt?!

Out of it comes not only the hell of good intentions but the Devil's own Perfect Advocate: Human Revenge!

Cal instantly seals East of Eden into the centuries old, theater tradition of The Revenge Tragedy.

As for the liberties that Kazan may have taken with the Steinbeck novel?

According to this comparison I've cited, the film is not only restricted to but completely loyal to and in harmony with the last 100 pages of Steinbeck's 700-page classic.

Both film and novel rise, in the most profoundly and timelessly moving climaxes, into the audiences desperately prayed-for cry for forgiveness.

It is as if the entire New Testament of the Holy Bible, gracefully guided to this climax by the Christ-figure of Julie Harris' Abra, explodes in the darkened bedroom of the stroke victim, Adam Trask.

The ultimate cause of his stroke?

The combined powers of Richard Davalos' performance as the good brother, Aron Trask, and the heart-breaking image of Aron Trask's ultimately raging despair over life and Fate's iniquity!

After all of Aron's "good intentions"?!

What is he left with but his own blindness?!

And with that agony, so completely and utterly delivered to us by Richard Davolos from the train he is leaving on… the "Good Brother" hurls his head straight through the train's window!!

The sight of that and the news that his son is now traveling to another town to enlist in the American Army?!

I weep even now in the simple memory of it.

With Aron gone off to what appears like a suicidal journey to the No Man's Land in Europe's World War I, his brother, James Dean's Cal, is seen setting his chair down next to the bed of his almost completely paralyzed father, fully committed to caring for the very man that had so frequently rejected him as the spawn of his sinful mother.

No works of art that I know of, aside from the Bible's New Testament itself, have so unforgettably and ineradicably shared the secret powers of forgiveness as have the novel and film, East of Eden.

The screenplay by Paul Osborn is equally as flawless.

All-in-all?

Young film directors who seek the highest standards for their craft and art form.

You can do no better than study the entire creation of East of Eden.

Given the Biblical origins of this drama?

Both the novel and the film will demand a lifetime of meditation, study and shameless gratitude. ESR

Michael Moriarty is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor who starred in the landmark television series Law and Order from 1990 to 1994. His recent film and TV credits include The Yellow Wallpaper, 12 Hours to Live, Santa Baby and Deadly Skies. Contact Michael at rainbowfamily2008@yahoo.com. He can be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/@MGMoriarty.

 

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