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East of Eden was James Dean’s first credited film appearance – and was it ever a career-maker.
The acclaimed drama captured the teenage idol’s angst and energy in this adaption of John Steinbeck’s classic novel.
The story, a riff on the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, gave Dean a chance to show his range, and his performance garnered an Academy Award nomination. Unfortunately, Dean died at the age of 24, with only a few films completed.
Nevertheless, East of Eden marks an important hallmark for the actor’s career.
“I always remember the last day of shooting,” said Julie Harris. “He came to the door. The tears were streaming down his face. And he said, ‘It's the last day. It’s over.’ It was so moving that he was so affected… it was so important to him, and now it was gone.”
1. Dean wasn’t the original lead.
Tab Hunter was originally cast in the lead role. Other actors that were considered for the part were Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Walter Matthau. Director Elia Kazan and author John Steinbeck both thought he embodied the role of Cal – especially since he had a difficult relationship with his own father. Dean was the first actor signed, and he was paid $1 thousand per week.
2. Dean and Massey didn’t click.
Just like their characters, James Dean and Raymond Massey were at odd during filming. Massey wasn’t a fan of Dean’s Method acting approach, and director Elia Kazan helped fuel the flames so that their on-screen tension would benefit. In fact, in the scene where Dean reads from the Bible, Kazan had the actor slip-in obscenities while he was reading. The result was an angry, natural reaction from Massey. “Well, the old man from the old school started to turn purple. He humped up from the table and started to yell,” said composer Leonard Rosenman, who witnessed the scene.
3. Dean and Harris did.
Kazan referred to Julie Harris as the “angel on our set”, and she was especially helpful in matching Dean’s energy on and off camera. “If it hadn’t been for Julie Harris I don’t think he would have gotten through the picture,” Kazan said. Harris recalled, “He just reminded me from the very beginning of Tom Sawyer. I really loved him, and I really loved working with him. I never worked with an actor again that was quite that way.” Interestingly, at one point, Joanne Woodward was considered for Harris' part.
4. Kazan enjoyed collaboration.
Director Elia Kazan is known for being an actor's director because he enjoyed collaborating with actors and using unique methods to get dramatic performances. Besides stoking the conflict between Dean and Massey, he also used manipulation to get Dean to perform. For instance, Dean struggled to perform the ice throwing stunt the right way. So to get a heated performance, Kazan mocked Dean's acting ability. Later, when Dean didn't want to walk on the slanted roof during his scene with Julie Harris, Kazan used liquid encouragement.