Saturday, 28 December 2013

Alternate Best Supporting Actor 1955: Raymond Massey in East of Eden

Raymond Massey did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Adam Trask in East of Eden.

East of Eden is known best as the film debut of James Dean introducing his style of performance to the silver screen. Dean's performance, which works incredibly well for the role of Cal Trask, is almost the antithesis of the style of Raymond Massey who plays the father of Cal. Where James Dean murmurs his lines, constantly looks in any direction that is not the natural direction, and slouches in every way imaginable whereas Raymond Massey stands up straight, looks directly where he should, and speaks all his lines firmly with proper diction. Their styles are dramatically opposed and this seems like something that might be rather distracting, but it absolutely works perfectly in creating that rift between the father and son.

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.

6 comments:

Mark said...

Do you think Jo Van Fleet deserved her Oscar?

Louis Morgan said...

I've always been very mixed on her performance. She does have a few good moments, but she never seems to know exactly how to play the character.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

One of the few examples where a lack of chemistry aided two performances immensely. My personal favorite scene with him is when Cal calls him out on him never loving him. He doesn't say a word, just stares despondently, as if he agrees with every word he says. It's as if he's wondering where he went wrong.

Anonymous said...

What did you make of Richard Davalos?

RatedRStar said...

Raymond Massey was another memorable Whats My Line guest lol when he was doing Dr Kildare =D.

Louis Morgan said...

Anonymous: He's okay, but really fails to make much of an impact.