In her first year in movies, Jo van Fleet made a big impression in Hollywood, starring in The Rose Tattoo with Best Actress winner Anna Magnani, I’ll cry tomorrow with Best Actress Nominee Susan Hayward and winning an Oscar for East of Eden, co-starring with Best Actor Nominee James Dean.
In East of Eden, Jo van Fleet played Kate, the madam of a brothel and, as it turns out, the mother of James Dean’s character Caleb and his brother Aaron.
This performance is one that is usually praised and admired – personally, I don’t quite understand that. When I first started watching the winners in this category I even had Jo Van Fleet on the last position simply because I found her performance so unspectacular and even obvious in a lot of moments. Well, my opinion has changed a little bit – I still have some problems with this piece of work but at the same time I began to appreciate the level of both mysteriousness and realism that she brings to her role.
This doesn’t mean that Jo Van Fleet faced a lost battle – Louise Fletcher was able to make a two-dimensional and distant character fascinating. Jo Van Fleet had some good material but her acting-style is often too distracting. When she lightens a cigarette, she seems to shout: ‘Look at me, I’m a method actor!’ or when she is moving a chair or bows her head to avoid James Dean’s look – it all just screams acting and feels very calculated. Nevertheless, she becomes rather impressive when Caleb asks her about his father and she tells him: ‘I shot him because he tried to stop me. I could have killed him if I wanted to but I didn’t, I just wanted him to let me go… he wanted to bring me up like a kid and tell me what to do, well nobody tells me what to do!’ But her best moment came earlier when she and James Dean are meeting outside and they talk to each other like strangers (which, basically, they are). The way she accepts his presence, laughs at bit, teases him before she ultimately realizes what he really wants is done extremely well – also because her chemistry with James Dean is perfect.
So why this position? Well, somehow what’s so distracting about Jo Van Fleet also works for the character and vice versa. There is something fascinating about Kate but the question is: does this fascination come from the writing or from the acting? I think it’s more the writing but Jo Van Fleet is still an acceptable vessel for Kate’s words. She is also very good when Caleb visits her in the middle of the night and she, unaware of his identity, shouts for her bullies to get him out and then she looks at him through the door with a kind of understanding look, as if she recognized him. Also, she is very touching in her last scene, the way she says ‘Oh, Cal…’.
At the end, the Academy honoured a very good actress, shown by her other two very different and very good performances in the same year.