Raymond Massey did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Adam Trask in East of Eden.
Massey and Dean are technically both theatrical actors but Massey is of the old way and Dean the new. In their scenes together there is always a rift with Massey putting everything directly as he can in terms of emotions and getting across the emotional point of a scene, and Dean doing his side stepping method that seems almost random at times. There is always a disconnection between the two's performances and it is fitting in showing the way the father and son are dramatically opposed in nature. Adam is a man who is always trying to be good and Massey's passionate straight forward portrayal expresses this well, but Cal is a troubled son, taking after his mother, which Dean expresses in his performance.
I don't want it to seem though that I am praising Massey for not having chemistry with Dean, as Massey portrays the part that goes deeper than the broad strokes. Adam is meant to be a good man and Massey portrays this honestly in his dignified manner he gives him, but as good men go he is not necessarily the easiest to like. Massey, unlike say Anthony Hopkins in The Elephant Man or Ian Charleson in Chariots of Fire who played genuinely good men, does not have that welcoming or warmth filled quality in his performance as Adam. This might seem a negative, but actually it is the right way to play Adam. The way Massey presents Adam's attitude keeps a distance making it understandable why Cal would act the way he does without compromising the nature of his character.
Massey brings the right complexity to his performance in the important moments particularly when Adam confesses the truth about their mother. It is easily Massey's best scene as he does his very best to make up for the fact that this film version cuts out the entirety of Adam's story before the birth of his sons. Massey has to tell a great deal of story in just a few sentences therefore it is all in his performance. Massey stays very understated in telling the story, which makes sense as Adam does not wish to delve too much into his past, and convey the complex emotions that Adam has with the situation. Massey has the idea of nostalgia and a past love as he speak of his wife, but as well the pain of the situation as he seems haunted by his relationship from a woman who was so unlike himself.
It seems a bit strange that the Academy chose to ignore Massey's work despite recognizing Dean's and Jo Van Fleet as Cal's mother, perhaps it is because Massey's role is a bit thankless. The finale of the film is of course for Dean and Adam's stroke and forgiveness of Cal is rather swift. Massey does well in portraying the disabled and damaged state of Adam, but he can only do so much in the scene as the focus is squarely on Dean. Massey does very well in the part, and it's performance that has really grown on me with time.I do wish that Massey had a few more scenes devoted to Adam's past
because the one he does have is exceptional scene in Massey's portrayal. The dynamic he and Dean share is a very striking one though, likely aided by their off set tensions which director Elia Kazan apparently encouraged, that very effectively creates the central conflict of the film.