3/03/2009

TV on DVD: John Steinbeck's East of Eden (1981 Miniseries) -- 3-Disc Set


ABC's Award-Winning
Classic Miniseries
Arrives on DVD 3/3/09





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You know your film is obscure when even Oprah Winfrey can't get her hands on it. Following its triumphant success when ABC's incredibly faithful adaptation of John Steinbeck's East of Eden hit the airwaves to critical acclaim and awards (garnering Jane Seymour a Golden Globe and a second statue as the Best Miniseries) in 1981, oddly enough Eden was somehow locked in the same vault that seems to kidnap one of my socks every time I do the laundry.

In a revealing new interview with Jane Seymour who cherished the opportunity to play the wickedly self-obsessed and manipulative Cathy-- the actress who has also called the part "the best role" in her career that's included on Acorn Media's brand new three-disc set, confesses that when Oprah Winfrey chose the novel for her newest book club launch in 2003, neither the talk show host nor the Steinbeck Estate knew where to track it down.



Whereas Elia Kazan's version of the book that Steinbeck referred to as his "quintessential novel," compressed the narrative and dealt with only the last third of the book-- this miniseries quickly introduces us to the oldest generation of the Trask family as they journey to post-Civil War Connecticut. Perhaps foreshadowing the biblical disasters that follow-- shortly upon their arrival the matriarch of the Trask family drowns herself and we're soon presented with the initial example of recurring Cain and Abel motif that is woven throughout the book as we first encounter the initial pair of opposite brothers Adam and Charles (Timothy Bottoms, Bruce Boxleitner).

Although they had their differences growing up as half-brothers, eventually the two became unexpectedly wealthy following a suspiciously giant inheritance from their deceased government worker father. Running a farm side by side-- they seem to mostly have gotten over their petty ways but this changes abruptly when the seductive manipulator Cathy (Jane Seymour) shows up at their doorstep. Since the film had been inter-cutting Cathy's tale in with that of the brothers-- we know exactly that although she arrives badly beaten and close to death-- the type of destruction a woman like Cathy can cause and while she doesn't fool the cynical Charles, Adam proves incredibly naive as he nurses the beauty back to health.

Their predictable coupling sets in motion a chain of events that produces the unlikely twins, Aron and Cal (Hart Bochner, Sam Bottoms) who seem doomed to repeat the sins of their father (if that is they know which dad is theirs). And this is exacerbated even more when Seymour's Cathy shoots her adoring husband Adam to escape the dull fate of being a farmer's wife upon their relocation to California. Wishing for the city life, Cathy abandons her newborns and trades careers from mother to madam at a nearby whorehouse she names after her new alter-ego Kate.

Keeping Cathy/Kate's existence a secret from his sons-- the rebellious Cal and saintly Aron-- Adam grows to favor the son who looks more like his mother yet morally recalls his father, leaving Cal to feel as though he were an outsider. And predictably, soon enough, he begins acting out when he learns the truth about his birth mother.

Although it has been a good ten to fifteen years since I read Steinbeck's gorgeous tome-- after the first hour which admittedly does take awhile to get viewers accustomed to the dark, foreboding cinematography of the piece-- the novel came rushing back to me and I cherished the filmmakers' devotion to the source material. One of the great American novels that borrows heavily from the stories of the bible for putting new twists on the idea of Adam and Eve, the "serpent" and the apple, Cain and Abel-- one of the best decisions made for this adaptation was to keep the supporting players evident in the novel present throughout the series as they greatly enrich the work as a whole.

This is especially apparent in the small but vital roles played by Anne Baxter as Cathy's mentor madam, a wonderful stereotype busting performance by Soon-Tek Oh as Lee, Adam's Chinese housekeeper who essentially serves as a second parent to the boys. Furthermore, he's the most important reminder to them that there is always a choice in one's actions and one doesn't necessarily have to do something evil because one feels as though it's inherited through their bloodline.

Of course, the major revelation for the miniseries is in Jane Seymour's tour-de-force as the beguiling villain who can go from sweet to sinister in six seconds flat. Hands down, the best performance Seymour has ever given and one that made filmmakers who'd judged the beauty for once playing a Bond girl think twice-- Seymour's mesmerizing transformation and bravery in playing such a horrific "she-serpent" as Acorn describes her, ensures you'll never look at Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman in quite the same way again.



While obviously, her Cathy-- much like "Curley's wife" in Of Mice and Men is yet another female character in the Steinbeck oeuvre that illustrates his misogynistic tendency to create sinful, lusty females out to ruin men to their death does make feminists take pause. However, the interview provided on the DVD makes one see her character in a whole other light as Seymour explains the way she immediately latched onto and understood Cathy. And she's still able to retain that "Cathy expression" to scare her husband. It's this cue she jokes that was the only direction she was given on-set to go into her "bad Cathy look" and Seymour, who admits that much like Anthony Hopkins, she agrees that "there's just nothing like a great evil role," is so shockingly good that in real life she found herself being doused with holy water at a wedding by a woman who was convinced she was possessed by Satan.



Although Seymour is easily the grandest scene-stealer in the film which still looks marvelous in its multimillion dollar Salinas, California shoot, there are times when she's nearly upstaged by a terrific ensemble that also features Lloyd Bridges in a memorable, small but vital role.

Moreover, literary lovers will adore all of the different allusions and double-meanings of the film as they tie into recurring motifs and plays on biblical stories right down to the names as the "A" names indicate goodness and the "C" names warn there's trouble ahead so that it makes a perfect companion piece to the book in uncovering subtext.

Intriguingly, Seymour-- who first saw the original Kazan version at the home of Steven Spielberg with whom she met while discussing Raiders of the Lost Ark-- ends up sharing the last portion of the film with the woman who won Spielberg's Indy role-- Karen Allen. The polar opposite of Kate-- Allen's Abraham inspired character Abra is a sweet and good-natured young woman but once you realize not only the name in which she's saddled but also that she's both female and involved with Steinbeck's oeuvre, it foreshadows nonetheless the fact that eventually one of the sons will have to be sacrificed.



While of course, Adam's omission of the truth about Aron and Cal's mother is definitely to blame and the tale pins the guilt on numerous parties-- over and over again from the first drowning to the final moments, Steinbeck's attitude towards the ladies and most notably his monstrous Cathy (with nary a trace of humanity) is less than forgiving in respect to the males. Obviously, the book is so compelling since it is such a morality tale and one has to look past modern interpretations of the psychological subtext going on in this one as well as Of Mice and Men (with regards to both women and disabled individuals) that can cloud our judgment on what a tremendously compelling feat that it is after all. And in Eden's case, it's one that plays even better when given the deluxe made-for-television cinematic treatment, now that fortunately it's been discovered by-- not Oprah-- but our friends at Acorn Media.


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