East of Eden (1981)

Taking on a TV miniseries version of of Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” is daunting for many reasons.  First, the original movie, though concentrating on just a portion of the novel, is iconic (if not very good).  Second, it’s a sweeping saga of multiple generations, but one with heft and meaning, rather than just a juicy story.  “East of Eden” is complex, its characters all flawed and difficult, but reading it is a special experience.  Watching it is a bit tougher.  This version suffers from questionable acting, with one exception, and it’s a giant one: Jane Seymour.  In a career full of amazing work, her Cathy Ames may be her greatest creation of all. 

In good old moralizing TV rule booking, Mrs. Trask finds out in the very first scene that she has contracted “Cupid’s Itch,” which she thinks came from dreaming about other men than her husband and she quickly offs herself by wearing virgin white to her suicide trip to the pond.  That leaves Cyrus Trask to raise Adam, feeding him alcohol to shut him.  Not to worry, Cyrus quickly marries again and has another son. 

Timothy Bottoms plays Adam Trask and Bruce Boxleitner plays Charles Trask, with a temper evident from his first appearance.  John Steinbeck was not subtle in writing “East of Eden,” just look at the names, and at Pa’s birthday, Charles gives him a pocket knife quickly thrown into the drawer while sweet-to-the-point of near retardation, gives him a cute puppy.  Alice Trask starts coughing, a sure sign wife #2 is headed the way of wife #1.

Evil to the point that the audience wants him to die soon, Cyrus insists poor meek Adam join the army.  Adam does not want to go, but Cyrus wants Adam to develop courage.  Charles makes it worse by taunting Adam about this relationship with Pa.  And for extra measure, Charles beats the crap out of Adam. 

Adam goes off to fight the Indians and Charles is suddenly very sorry that he hated Adam so much.  Cyrus pulls strings to get Adam a better military job, and Adam, no longer bordering on retardation, seems happy to accept if only because he’s drunk.  He’s grown bitter, especially having to burn the body of his gal pal, felled by Small Pox.  He refuses Cyrus’ offer and returns to the Indians. 

We then meet Cathy, in the barn showing off her naughty parts to two young boys, so her mother scrubs her hard as punishment.  Her mother wears a big cross, so we know she’s a religious zealot.  Mrs. Ames is one tough dame.  She insists the fathers of the boys beat them…naked!  Cathy watches with a smile.

Grown up, Cathy, our beloved Jane Seymour, is still a flirt.  Hell, she’s even working the teacher to assure good grades.  Teach is so distraught at being used, he kills himself…with a gun…in church!  Badass Cathy kills her parents and burns the house down before leaving town, with everyone assuming she’s been kidnapped. 

Adam has been tramping around the world and finally comes home to roost.  Pa is dead and Charles is acting all weird.  It turns out Cyrus had a will that leads the boys to the conclusion that he was a thief.  Adam isn’t at all upset, acting as crazy as, well, Charles used to be, and Charles is the sane one. 

Charles takes Adam to a whorehouse, but the whores have moved over to the local revival meetings, so their boss (Howard Duff) smacks ’em silly.  They have found religion, must to the chagrin of the boss.

Sly Cathy finds the whore master and asks for a job, spinning a yarn that she needs the money for her poor indigent mother and by the next scene, she’s his kept woman, dressing in furs and picking out expensive nick knacks.  She is pulling a royal scam on him, and when she gets drunk, she whirls around the room in a macabre dance of truth.  Jules takes her out to the woods and beats her, coincidentally on the Trask property.  Permanently scarred, Adam decides they should keep her

Cathy plays the brothers against each other and if you aren’t used to Jane Seymour playing a bad girl, her performance truly is something to see.  It’s not just because Timothy Bottoms and Bruce Boxleitner are pretty bad, but more because she is luminous.  Adam is completely in love with her, but she seduces Charles, who hasn’t exactly been her biggest fan.

Cathy marries Adam, but sleeps with Charles before convincing Adam to take her away to California.  She discovers she’s pregnant and pulls out the knitting needle, but has terrible aim, according to the doctor, and the baby is okay (but he’s a lousy doctor if he doesn’t realize there are two in there).

Part 2 begins almost exactly where we left off.  Adam finds out Cathy is pregnant and he goes all goofy with happiness, deciding to turn his land into a garden.  “Just like your namesake,” says his neighbor Samuel.  The Biblical symbolism is obvious, but again, Steinbeck was anything but subtle.  When Samuel reminds Adam of Eve and the apple, Adam goes double goofy praising how good a woman she is.  Oh, she’s good, but not like that! 

However, breaking the movie’s agreement for all to stay on the right side of overacting, Lloyd Bridges gives a hoot-and-a-half performance when he thinks he’s discovered water.  He looks like a homeless man talking to the moon. 

With the house comes Asian servant Lee, played with voracious delight by Soon-Teck Oh, piling on the pigeon English, replete with a lack of the letter r over and over.  He’s onto her from the beginning and she treats him with contempt. 

When Cathy goes into labor, she becomes The Exorcist, snarling and raging and biting Sam’s hand, in time to the dynamiting gong on outside where Sam’s son’s have found water.  The birth scene is, well, unique.  It’s true to the characters, but chewy.  Cathy wants nothing to do with her twins.  Or Adam for that matter.  He can stay in the room, “but don’t talk” she says like a serpent. 

Sam figures out Lee’s secret: he’s not FOB Chinese.  He speaks perfect English and only bothers with the charade because it’s what is expected of him.  As in the novel, Lee is the smartest person in the story, and as played beautifully by Soon-Teck Oh, he’ll keep the Trask family together. 

A week later, Cathy leaves Adam without a tear and nothing but malice in her spirit.  He initially forces her to stay, but she shoots him in the shoulder and bolts.  It’s going to be a looooooooong section without her.  Still, Adam pretends he shot himself, though no one really believes that.  Lee has to lay it on thick to keep the authorities at bay.  Timothy Bottoms’ understated style comes in handy for the first time.  It’s only been somewhat annoying up until now. 

Cathy ends up in a whorehouse where the sheriff tracks her down.  He won’t prosecute her if she stays silent and never visits her sons.  That’s certainly no problem!  For her next move, she goes to work for Fay (a delicious Anne Baxter), who takes to her very quickly, so quickly that Fay leaves her the house.  Since Fay is obviously dying, it won’t be long before Cathy is a whore master herself!  Now called Kate, she makes the mistake of drinking wine, which we know doesn’t agree with her and she goes all manic on Fay.  Jane Seymour trumps the mistress of these types of character, Anne Baxter, turning in her finest work so far.  Fay will live after Kate sedates her, but it’s Kate’s house now. 

Fifteen months later, Adam has let the farm go to ruin and hasn’t even given his sons names (Lee isn’t playing Charlie Chan, so they aren’t #1 and #2).  Sam has to crack him across the face to get Adam to wake up from his stupor.  There ensues a weird scene where they decide to name the boys, finally using the Cain and Abel story.  What makes the scene so odd is the acting styles.  Timothy Bottoms goes for his “I’m hiding from the world” understatement, Lloyd Bridges is cuckoo, so thankfully we have Soon-Tech Oh to set a standard.  They discuss the Biblical story and read the entire damn thing in a scene desperate for trimming. 

Oh, during the previous conversation, Sam had coughed, so in the next scene, he’s dead.  I didn’t need to tell you that.  Everyone knows what a TV cough means. 

Adam goes to Monterrey to see Kate, who has managed to get Fay dead and now runs the successful establishment.  Kate remains lofty and superior, and poor Adam is still in love with her.  Kate tries to seduce him to prove how evil she is, but he refuses and she goes wild.  After her bouncer beats him up, Kate tells him how much she hates him and it’s catharsis for Adam, who can finally leave her.  But, she has one last surprise for him and tells him the boys are Charles’.  Whether he believes it or not, the symbolism of him walking away in a rainstorm is also TV cliche, and he’s rid of her for good.  That’s the end of Part 2.

Ever the doormat, Adam decides not to confront Charles about it and he will raise the boys.  He then apologizes to Lee for yelling at him after Sam’s funeral. 

Cal (Sam Bottoms) is a somewhat bad kid.  Aron (Hart Bochner) is a tatte-tale weakling in love with Abra (Karen Allen).  Unlike his real-life brother, Sam has already spent more energy acting than Timothy has in two parts of the story. 

Cal learns from Tom Hamilton that the story Adam had told them about his mother is a lie and goes to Monterrey, hiding in the bushes when Kate passes by.  Meanwhile, to show how “good” Aron is, he’s at home dancing innocently to records with Abra and his father.  Cal has a plan to send a refrigerated wreath to her grave, knowing full well she’s not dead, but Aron and Abra try to stop him.  Since Sam Bottoms is the only one acting, that’s not likely.  Oh, and Cal invents refrigerated veggies during this conversation.

Aron invites his whole family to his confirmation, a surprise to all of them, and he plans to be in the church.  When the pastor speaks to all of them and inquires about their religion, Lee has one of the movie’s best lines when he says, “I’m a heathen, but I’m still trying.”

Adam goes to successful car dealer Will Hamilton (Richard Masur) and pitches the frozen lettuce idea.  Tom says it will never work and then we get a montage of it working (all Tim Bottoms has to do is stand there, and that he manages better than just about anything he’s done so far).  Unfortunately, one shipment sits idle in the Chicago stockyards and it almost ruins the whole business.  Aron is frustrated at being the talk of the town and after Abra offers to quit school and raise money, a bully at the local ice cream shoppe (where else would Aron and Abra be hanging out?) insults them and Cal happens by to dump ice cream on the bullies.  There is tension. 

Cal returns to Monterrey and sneaks into Kate’s with a fraternity.  He speaks to Kate, but not long enough to tell her she’s his mother as a raid gets in the way.  The sheriff has aged right along with Kate, still going strong.  Cal and Adam have an insanely long conversation about it, without Adam telling him the whole truth.  It’s the first time father and son have really talked.  Near the end, Cal drops the bomb about Kate, that he knows all, but as Lee says, “it doesn’t seem to have hurt his disposition at all.” 

In fact, he goes into business with Will Hamilton, who speaks to Cal like he’s about to screw him over big time.  He gets the money to invest from Lee, after threatening to get it from his mother.

He does, however, pay Kate a visit.  Gnarled with arthritis and living in a window-less crypt, she’s as ornery as ever.  With false teeth and a bunch of make-up, she’s aged very well, except for the hands, of course.  She fires every question at him, but he only wants to know why she shot Adam.  Jane has a phenomenal monologue, delivered at empty space, and handles it with the scary flair she’s constantly exhibited.  Cal can see through her wickedness and, not able to handle it, sends him away.

Aron is on his way to becoming a minister and Kate can’t resist showing up to see a sermon.  And no, she doesn’t burn as soon as she walks into church. 

World War I starts and Aron picks that night to tell Abra he has to remain a virgin for the church.  She goes to Cal to talk about it.  “You do bad things, don’t you?  You, you go to bad houses,” she says, sitting on a lettuce truck with him.  She was really counting on having sex with Aron, but Cal makes her laugh by suggestion the minister with whom Aron studies doesn’t even go to the bathroom, let alone have sex. 

Aron goes off to school, but hates it.  He’s not cut out for it.  He’s a sweet one, this kid, but not bright.  At least Adam had some sense in him.  Cal indeed makes money with Mr. Hamilton and the family has a big celebration (of bad acting) for Thanksgiving.  After Aron entertains them with college stories, Cal gives his father $15k, but Adam refuses it because he feels it came from war profiteering.  It’s an unfair way of looking at it, and the reaction brings out the worst in Cal.  Lee, as always, is the voice of reason, telling Cal that all of his decisions are his, not his mother’s or his father’s. 

But Cal chooses incorrectly.  He takes Aron to meet Kate.  As Cal probably expected, Aron reacts violently to this, but Kate is already half-crazed anyway, in her light-less chamber.  Wise Lee knows when Aron comes home exactly what Cal has done (though he does of course have to wail something to effect of “am I my brother’s keeper” to once again hammer in the symbolism) and rushes to his room to find Cal burning the money his father wouldn’t accept.  “I don’t want to be mean,” Cal says, believing it’s simply his nature.  In his rage, Aron joins the army, setting us up for the massive dramatic climax of Biblical proportions that can only come from a saga like this. 

With Aron gone and sending no letters, Abra realizes she’s not in love with him.  Unfortunately for us, we learn this during a particularly dire scene at the ocean that gives Karen way more dialogue than she can handle.  She admits her love for Cal and they kiss.  It’s a shame that Sam Bottoms had to share this scene with Karen Allen, because he’s been doing just fine, not dragged down by those around him until now. 

Aron dies and Adam has a stroke upon hearing the news.  Cal tells Adam all, that he feels responsible for everything, though Lee tries to make it better, ultimately sending Abra after him instead.  They return home where Lee whispers to Adam to give Cal his blessing, his forgiveness and Adam dies.

That’s heavy stuff for a miniseries.  Unlike something like “War and Remembrance,” which sets itself a background of a popular war in order to insulate its characters or even “The Adams Chronicles,” where the characters have a hand in inventing their historical times, “East of Eden” exists only on a fictional level, with no real-life characters, much in the same vein as “Rich Man, Poor Man,” although on a firmer foundation of literature.  And, unlike filming a Bible story, it has far more baggage.  At over six hours, it would have required far more precision to make it exceptional.  Instead, it’s solid and even very good, but it definitely sags.  The third portion is definitely the toughest because Jane Seymour is absent and her performance is the best to watch (so is her character, a deeply flawed cretin who actually enjoys being that way).  That brings up the question in American miniseries of how much actual good acting is required.  Certainly popular TV of the time was not popular because of its acting.  John Ritter racked up Emmy nominations for “Three’s Company,” but is that really good acting?  Other than Barbara Bel Geddes, not one of the main actors from the wildly popular “Dallas” were even nominated.  Acting back then was secondary to not only story, but the way story was told (outrageous comedy, outrageous camp or seriously deep drama).  If we had to rely on Robert Mitchum’s Pug Adams in the Herman Wouk epics, no one would have watched beyond the first night.  As much grand tradition heft Lynn Redgrave brought to “Centennial,” its historical sweep did not allow her a lot of screen time.

But, in “East of Eden” all that is important is the way the characters play the story to make it believable, because if they don’t, this simply becomes, well, the vapid James Dean version with no soul.  Sam Bottoms and Soon-Tech Oh seem to understand that they need to focus on characterizations to keep the story potent, but it’s the truly magnetic Jane Seymour who holds “East of Eden” together.  She had been doing miniseries for a decade before this and is still a television icon in 2010 because of performances like this.  Without her Kate, a tragic angry figure who asks for and receives no sympathy, this miniseries if a great American novel may have been a footnote no more remembered than the miniseries versions of not great American novels.

Categories: Adventure Miniseries, Romance Miniseries

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