Remembering Julie Harris, Elia Kazan’s Angel and James Dean’s Guiding Light
By Stuart Mitchner
I doubt that Jimmy would ever have got through East of Eden (1955) except for an angel on our set. Her name was Julie Harris and she was goodness itself with Dean, kind and patient and everlastingly sympathetic.
–Elia Kazan, from A Life
Kazan was on the money about Julie Harris. The five-time Tony-Award-winning actress, who died at 87 on August 24, was the heart and soul of East of Eden, the film that gave the world James Dean. When you see his moody, spectacularly conflicted character Cal through the eyes of Harris’s Abra, your affection for her fuels your fascination with him. It’s the quality of Abra’s eventual devotion to Cal that lends credibility to Dean’s over-the-top performance.
When studio head Jack Warner wanted to dump Harris for a “prettier” girl, Kazan insisted on casting her. He counted on the special presence she would bring to the film and she gave him even more than he expected: “As a performer, she found in each moment what was dearest and most moving.” She also had “the most affecting voice” he’d ever heard in an actress, one that “conveyed tenderness and humor simultaneously.” Kazan ends by admitting, “She helped Jimmy more than I did with any direction I gave him.”
It’s not just that Julie Harris becomes Dean’s muse, shining the light of her sympathy and understanding on his theatrics, she gives warmth, humor, and unspoiled loveliness to a big, sprawling, sometimes off-puttingly histrionic film, with music by Leonard Rosenman to match its most florid passages. No surprise, the best thing in the score is the love theme that plays whenever Cal and Abra are together.
Dealing With Dean
Harris clearly knew how to approach her notoriously difficult and unruly co-star. When they first met, he tried to get a rise out of her by making a comment about her age (“Do you think you look too old for me?”), which she laughed off, pointing out that she was only five years older. Although she was already a seasoned, award-winning actress, she was also “utterly lacking in airs or affectation,” as Donald Spoto’s Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean (1996) points out. Instead of treating him as a nemesis, she saw him as a character out of classic American fiction: “He reminded me of Tom Sawyer, always looking for adventure, always looking to mix it up.”
According to Kazan, Dean enjoyed antagonizing Raymond Massey, who played Cal’s father, Adam (“They hated one another”). Instead of trying to smooth things over, Kazan let the hostility simmer, rightly figuring that it would contribute to the tension he wanted. Based on John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel, with its allusion to the Cain-Abel story, the film is centered on Cal the “bad” son, Aron (Richard Davalos) the good son, and Aron’s girl Abra; the plot is driven by Cal’s move from defiance of Adam to a struggle to win his love and acceptance. While Massey fumed about Dean’s unprofessional behavior on and off the set, Harris, much like her character Abra, let Dean be what he was. As she told Spoto in a 1995 interview, “The raw material of our work is people, and I’ve always thought it’s wrong to say, ‘Why can’t you behave?’ If somebody’s not behaving, you just say, ‘Well, he’s not behaving,’ and you deal with it.”
Spoto thinks the scenes between Harris and Dean “bring the film to life as do no other moments.” The first such scene takes place in a field when Abra encounters Cal as she’s bringing Aron his lunch. Up to that point, her response to him has been wary, even fearful, but curious, interested. Now there’s no doubt that she’s attracted, and emboldened, drawing him out, moving beyond casual conversation as she charmingly relates how in a fit of anger she threw away her stepmother’s engagement ring. To get his attention she blurts out, “I threw away three thousand dollars once!” What she wants is to show that he’s not the only person who ever behaved irrationally at the expense of a parent. The remarkable thing about the scene is that it’s essentially all Harris. Dean enjoys it, says very little, laughs a bit, his low-key response charming in itself in the way it shows his awareness of the delicate balance of the flirtation they’re engaged in.
For 17-year-old males, and presumably females, the key love scene — the one most likely to lead to misery and humiliation when imitated in real life — takes place on a ferris wheel. As a childhood devotee of Saturday matinee westerns who shouted “Mush!” whenever a kiss between cowboy hero and comely maid was in the offing, I can testify that the kiss on the ferris wheel is beyond reproach. It’s not mushy, or corny, or silly, or anything but what it should be. We want it to happen; all of us vicarious Cals and Abras in the audience are hoping hoping hoping it will happen, and when it does, it’s like a line of perfectly imperfect poetry falling into place almost in spite of itself — he leans toward her, she leans toward him, they kiss, but without embracing. Both begin to make a move in that direction but it’s a passionately inconclusive gesture and as he’s about to take it further, she pulls back and begins to cry, insisting miserably that she loves Aron.
Later the same night, after a riot erupts around a German American man who is set upon when he denounces the wartime propaganda (it’s 1918), Cal and Aron have it out, Cal explodes, knocking Aron down. Abra knows who’s really hurting, however, and goes to comfort Cal, and from then on, she’s determined to save him, heal his wounds, and bring together father and son. Which is another way of saying Julie Harris saves James Dean and the movie by helping bring him together with the audience.
Dean’s most extreme piece of acting, possibly the most extravagant moment of his short career, occurs after he and Abra arrange a special birthday celebration for his father. All goes well until Aron shows up and announces that he and Abra are going to be married (not having told her or anyone else in advance). Adam says this is the best possible present, nothing could be better, a blow to Cal even before he has a chance to offer his own gift, which is the money he made by taking advantage of the wartime rise in the price of beans. Adam, who serves on the local draft board, huffily condemns this as war profiteering, and hands back the money with a forced, hollow, thanks-for-the-thought brush-off far more hurtful than an angry rejection would have been. To say that Cal is devastated doesn’t come close. His naked agony is embarrassing to behold, as Kazan knew it would be; although he doesn’t comment on it in his book, the painful, cringe-inducing excessiveness of the scene must have aroused serious debate in the screening room. Presumably Kazan left it in the film because such extremity of misery is rarely seen, not to mention being a graphic example of Actors Studio acting.
Cal’s sobbing meltdown is hard to watch. It certainly wasn’t easy for Massey, who was shocked and repelled because he didn’t know it was coming. The son’s groveling, wretched travesty of an embrace as he sinks to the floor at his father’s feet was not in the script. Today’s audiences may laugh at the scene or wince or roll their eyes, while others may still respond the way those of us guided by Abra’s loving understanding did. Julie Harris had our hearts in her hand and her heart was with Cal. If she hadn’t felt for him in that horrible moment, neither would we, so that when he hurls himself into the night baying like a wounded animal, we’re with her as she goes to console him, and though we can’t see them in the shadows, we can hear her sweet soothing loving voice and his moaning misery. Kazan keeps the scene hidden, reflecting Aron’s point of view, but we know what’s happening, that this love will be taken to the limit now, she’s his, he’s hers, and Aron knows it.
Loving Her Again
The few films Julie Harris made reveal her range and her genius, from the vulnerable adolescent in Member of the Wedding to the vivacious Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera, parts she also played on the stage. I was glad that she made so few movies. I didn’t want to see her in anything else. I wanted Julie Harris to keep being Abra forever. It’s only now, with the news of her death, that I realize how much her Abra meant to me. It was the first time I ever cared that much about someone in a film.
Over the years friends have told me “You must see Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst,” a suggestion I had no interest in taking up, again perhaps partly because I felt so protective of my teenage ideal. Also, much as I admire Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the idea of a one-woman show left me cold. Even if easy access to The Belle of Amherst had been available, I’d have foolishly stayed away. Now that she’s gone — the saddest of excuses — I find the complete performance is available online and there she is — Abra 20 years later, and if anything, even lovelier now because she’s infused with the genius of a great poet and what a joy she is, what a funny, infinitely charming person. How thankful I am to be able to see her now. And how stupid I feel, to have waited this long.
The special edition DVD of East of Eden I watched was purchased at the Princeton Record Exchange. In the still from the film shown here, Abra (Julie Harris) and Cal (James Dean) are about to get on the ferris wheel, where they will share “a passionately inconclusive kiss.”