With the passing in September of Elia Kazan, aged 94, America lost its greatest living motion-picture director and one of its greatest theatrical directors as well. Yet for the Left, the death of this immensely talented man, a few of whose films undoubtedly did more for liberal causes than anything they could ever dream, was occasion for new efforts traducing his lifeall because half a century ago, at the height of Soviet Russia's efforts to subvert our country, he identified communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee when it was endeavoring to uncover communist influence in the entertainment industry.
Kazan directed his first film, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," from the Betty Smith novel, in 1945, and reached his peak in the early '50s with "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) and "On the Waterfront" (1954). His last major works were "Splendor in the Grass" (1961) and his most personal movie, the immigrant saga "America, America" (1963). He faded thereafter and his final film was the much anticipated, interesting, but ultimately disappointing "The Last Tycoon" (1976), based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's last, uncompleted novel.
Entering films from the theater, Kazan will be long remembered for the compelling performances he drew from his actors. In a mere decade, from 1945 to 1955, he directed an astonishing nine actors to Academy Awardsand was honored himself with two best director Oscars, for the seminal anti-Semitism drama, "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947) and "On the Waterfront," both of which also won the best picture awards. During this period he frequently returned to the theater, directing the original productions of Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and "All My Sons," among others.
Kazan learned how to inspire his actors to dig deep into themselves from his early years in New York's Group Theatre and as co-founder with Lee Strasberg of the Actors' Studio. He was an early proponent of method acting, which exploded on to the silver screen with revolutionary force in Marlon Brando's performance as Stanley Kowalski in "Streetcar." This was the part which catapulted Brando to stardom, initially on Broadway: He is the crude, brutal working class realist confronting the romantic illusions (and delusions) of the delicate, faded belle, Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh). With Kazan at the helm, Brando pioneered, and remains the exemplar of, the more informal, unconstrained, id-powered acting style that is embodied today by actors like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Moreover, from our perspective half a century later, the clash between the unconstrained, "liberated" Kowalski and the traditional, if flawed, Blanche prefigures the culture war that has engulfed American society. (Three of the four principals won the acting Academy AwardsMiss Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunterbut Brando had to wait three years, until "On the Waterfront.")
The most famous scene of Brando's career is of course his "I coulda been a contender" lament in the back of the taxicab with his brother (Rod Steiger) in "On the Waterfront." The story of an ignorant young longshoreman who, almost against his will, is compelled by his humanity to stand up alone and revolt against the tyranny of the corrupt union boss (Lee J. Cobb) is one of the towering testaments to the individual human spirit ever put on the screen. The best line of that memorable scene actually is the one that follows, when Brando's Terry Malloy, looking out on the hopeless life that stretches before him, tells his brother who, at the behest of the union boss, had made him throw his big boxing match, "I coulda been somebody...instead of a bum." The throbbing pain of Brando's helpless despair in this scene is almost palpable; it is the high point of what in the half-century since has become a wasted career. (Recognizing I am in the minority in disapproving of the stolid, arthritic "The Godfather" , I would argue that Brando has not made a memorable movie since 1954. Quite an achievement for a man of such talent. His failure is attributable to his egotism and indiscipline, traits that since have become a prominent feature of American life and culture.)
"On the Waterfront" won eight Academy Awards, including, besides best picture and best director, for best screenplay (Budd Schulberg), best actor (Brando), and best supporting actress (Eva Marie Saint, in her debut). Mention also should be made of Karl Malden as the priest who helps guide Terry to his truth; nowadays, religious figures are more often objects of derision in Hollywood. In addition to the extra personal edge of its inspired acting, the film was celebrated for the gritty naturalism of its setting, filmed in Hoboken and ably realized in the bleak black and white, Oscar-winning cinematography of Boris Kaufman.
Terry steps over the line into defiance of the union boss when he testifies before a committee investigating corruption on the docks. The parallels with Kazan's 1952 decision to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee are obvious, and the unrepentant anti anti-Communists are uncomfortable with the film to this day. Not to mention their rage against Kazan personally. (Another of his superb films that would make them queasy is his 1953 drama about a circus troupe's escape from behind the Iron Curtain, "Man on a Tightrope.")
Their venom never has been tempered by Kazan's superb direction in the late '40s of two path-breaking movies against anti-Semitism and racial bigotry; in considering these films' enormous impact, note that in those pre-television days up to 80 million Americansout of a much smaller population than todayattended the movies every week. Kazan's films started a cycle of enlightened movies that reflected the new impetus toward equality and decency that burst out of the Second World War, most famously with Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947. The leading figure behind these movies initially was 20th Century-Fox chairman Darryl F. Zanuck. The mostly Jewish studio moguls (e.g. Louis B. Mayer, Jack L. Warner, Harry Cohn) had always feared to tread against the prejudices that were so widespread before the war, and Hollywood had always been very conservative (with some notable exceptions) on social and economic issues. Zanuck, the most prominent non-Jew heading a studio, saw matters differently; the noble series of films he and Kazan began stretched into the 1960's (e.g. "The Defiant Ones" , "To Kill a Mockingbird" , "A Patch of Blue" ). They helped lead American society forward, toward fulfillment of its highest ideals. (One biography of Zanuck, a mogul's mogul, is titled, Don't Say Yes Until I Finish Talking. In his day, "Fox" meant superb entertainment and sometimes more, unlike Rupert Murdoch's trashy "Fox" of today.)
In the first of these films, "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), based on the best-selling novel by Laura Z. Hobson, Gregory Peck plays a magazine writer who decides to pose as a Jew to investigate anti-Semitism. (Before the war, the word "Jew" was rarely if ever mentioned in movies, although there were plenty of stereotypes of Jews, as of other ethnic groups, blacks worst of all.) He encounters this hate for the next two hoursattitudes that had never before been dramatized on the big screen, except in the contemporaneous and equally worthy "Crossfire" of the same year, produced by Dore Schary at the RKO studio. The film is generally dismissed today as too pat, although daring for its time. But this is not quite fair, in part thanks to the intensity of Kazan's direction, which helps bring out the psychological rawness of the subject as reflected in the characters' emotions. Also, the doubts of Peck's girlfriend (Dorothy McGuire), who knows he is a Christian but needs reassurance in order to steel herself against her smart Connecticut friends, add a subtlety to the film that is still compelling.
Zanuck and Kazan next turned to racial prejudice in "Pinky" (1949); this was six years before Rosa Parks ignited the modern civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white man. Today this film is patronized even more than "Gentleman's Agreement" because the protagonist, a light-skinned young black woman who has earned a nursing degree up North and returns to live with her poor grandmother in the South, is played by a white actress (Fox's wholesome Jeanne Crain). Her grandmother is played by the great black musical star, Ethel Waters. Pinky had "passed" as white up North and is engaged to a white doctor who learns the truth only when he comes down to see her and discovers where she is living. (He is played by the blonde actor William Lundigan). Even taking into account that Miss Crain was known by the audience to be white, their love scenes together were truly revolutionary in 1949.
Viewers who are able to bring historical perspective to the film can appreciate the moral power and undoubted positive social influence of "Pinky," whose acting and script stand up extremely well in telling the story of a young woman's struggle to find her identity against her own fears as well as society's hatred. (Movies of this timesee also the outstanding 1949 film of William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust, filmed on location in Mississippipresent the old South in all its old Confederate "glory.") Kazan leads it all to one of those glorious cathartic climaxes so often found in the best movies of the Golden Age: Pinky turns aside the entreaties of her fiancée to return up North with him, where she can continue to pass and look forward to an easy, comfortable life. Instead, in the final scene, she looks out over the grounds of the mansion that has been left to her by the town's dowager, Miss Em, whom she had nursed during her final illness (the grand Ethel Barrymore, who, if I may add a footnote, many years before had been the object of the affections of a young politician named Winston Churchill). Their relationship had grown slowly from patronizing racism to mutual respect. The bequest astonishes not only Pinky but of course the town locals and Miss Em's family, who contest the will in courtbut lose before a fair judge. The mansion's broad lawn now is filled with children playing before the entrance to Miss Em's health clinic for the poor and school for nurses, which Pinky has founded in memory of her benefactress.
The quality of Kazan's work on these two films (which I rank above the better known and much beloved "To Kill a Mockingbird") is further appreciated when one looks at the next pathbreaking movie produced by Zanuck: "No Way Out" (1950). This was Sidney Poitier's first movie; he is a young emergency room doctor who is called on to treat two gunmen who have been brought in by the police, one played as a virulent racist by Richard Widmark. ("Is this a hospital or the cotton club?" he leers on first encountering his doctor.) Widmark's brother, the other gunman, dies, and of course Poitier is accused of malpractice and the progressives at the top don't know what to do. Plus they have a looming race riot to contend with. Direction was entrusted to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, then respected as Hollywood's top director and writer, having won both the best direction and screenplay Academy Awards in 1949 for "A Letter to Three Wives," a feat he was to repeat in 1950 with the famous Bette Davis movie "All About Eve." But "No Way Out," for all its social significance, is dated and rather mediocre next to the fire that still glows from the two Kazan movies. (In 2002, when Poitier, the first black movie star, was awarded an honorary Academy Award, he thanked a number of the people who had made his success possiblestarting with Darryl F. Zanuck and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.)
Kazan later said he first mastered the unique visual element of movie-making with "Panic in the Streets" (1950), a thriller which marked Jack Palance's debut as a killer infected with bubonic plague roaming the streets of New Orleans (filmed on location). He is desperately but methodically tracked down by Navy health officer Richard Widmark and regular Joe detective Paul Douglas. (This was certainly a most appropriate debut role for Palance, who made a career cast as over-wrought tough guys.) "Viva Zapata!" (1952) has Brando as the Mexican revolutionary (Anthony Quinn won the best supporting actor Oscar), but the outdoor sweep required by this film was not Kazan's forte. His great talent with actors and intense drama is better seen in the adaptation of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" (1955), with young James Dean burning with Brando-like intensity. Jo Van Fleet as the mother was awarded the Oscar for best supporting actress.
Kazan's most interesting film after "On the Waterfront" is "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), also written by Budd Schulberg. It is way ahead of its time in dramatizing the rise and fall of a cracker barrel political evangelist, Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith, before he became typecast as the down-home sheriff of television's Mayberry), who lusts for fame and power through his manipulation of the new medium of television. At the peak of his fame he cynically sells his expertise to a vicious presidential candidate. "Ya gotta make 'em love ya!" he exclaims as he shows the hack just how to put himself over. Amazingly, the guitar-playing demagogue hails from Arkansas of all places! Schulberg's original short story was called "Arkansas Traveler."
Kazan's most personal film is "America, America" (1963), based on his book. Without his great prestige and record of success, he would never have found a studio to back this long, documentary-like account (without name actors) of his uncle's tortuous, determined struggle to escape Ottoman Turkey for the New World. (Kazan was born to Greek parents in Constantinople in 1909.) On finally making it to New York at the climax, our young hero places an American hat on his head and kisses the ground of his already beloved new country. Maybe this politically incorrect ending further explains the widespread hostility toward Kazan of much of contemporary Hollywood.
Like all the great motion picture directors of his generation and before, Kazan had the artistic imagination to create unforgettable scenes dramatizing violence and eros in the classical manner of pre-20th century Western art. (See, "Classical Greece and Classical Hollywood," which discusses how the classical aesthetics of Lessing's 18th-century treatise on "Laocoon" were applied in Hollywood movies, and "Eros in Classical Hollywood Movies"). For example, in "Boomerang!" (1947), a drama of moral corruption in a small Connecticut town, based on a true story, the opening murder of a priest as he is about to cross the sedate main street remains vivid in the imagination long after seeing the filmprecisely because of what is not shown.
Likewise, the rape scene in "Streetcar" ends with a close-up of the fainted Blanche's face reflected in the mirror that was cracked during her desperate struggle against the muscle-man Kowalski. True to the civilized aesthetic principles adduced by Lessing, the impact of the violation is dramatized by the shattered site of the victim both before and after the deed has been donethe deed itself is never shown. We also experience it through the shocked reaction after the event of a third person, her sister and Stanley's wife, Stella (Kim Hunter).
"Streetcar" is also an object lesson in the civilized treatment of eros. The sexual tension between Stanley and his wife is as steamy today as when filmed so long agowith the actors' clothes on, except for Brando's famous torn undershirt. In recent years, Stella's slow evocative walk down the staircase in response to the desperate shrieks of her wild husband after they have had one of their (many) fightshis "Stellaaaaa!" is an indelible movie momenthas been embellished with footage that had been ordered cut at the time by the Production Code censor. This makes the scene's eroticism much more blatant and, as so often is the case, actually shows the aesthetic superiority of the more restrained treatment. (Of course, this is not the view of the critics who love the addition.) But either way, Kazan's approach is a model of artistry next to the literalistic and unrestrained contemporary approach.
Kazan returned to the treatment of eros in "Baby Doll" (1956), with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams. Two middle-aged, trashy Southerners (Karl Malden and Eli Wallach) vie for a nubile 19-year-old virgin (Carroll Baker). She is married to Malden, but he is waiting for her 20th birthday to consummate the bizarre marriage. The film was very provocative for its time and was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decencythe movie's tagline was "19 years old and married...but not really!" Kazan and Williams were again pushing the limits, but they always stay within the limits of art.
His last popular film, "Splendor in the Grass" (1961), is a drama of an unrequited first love in a repressive, small Kansas town in the '20s (written by the expert on the subject, William Inge, also the author of the '50s classic, Picnic). It movingly portrays the mentally devastating heartbreak that is inflicted on the shy, sensitive girl (Natalie Wood, Oscar nominated) by the town's social mores and by the rigid father of her beau (played by Warren Beatty in his movie debut). And Kazan has no difficulty conveying within civilized artistic bounds the eroticism of the young relationship and the aroused desires of the naïve teenager. His tenderness and delicacy as a director are memorably demonstrated in the final scene, when the girl, having recovered from a breakdown, comes to visit her lost love, who now is chained to a modest farm with a bedraggled wife. As in the taxicab scene in "On the Waterfront," Kazan, through his actors, is able to make the character's emotionhere the pain of lost lovealmost palpable; only here he does so without her having even to put her feelings into words. Like a great musician, he is able to convey the emotion that lies behind the written page.
This brilliantly talented and humane man was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1999. The legions of Hollywood leftists were beside themselves with disgust, and those in attendance at the ceremony, such as Jack Nicholson, ostentatiously remained seated as the elderly gentleman came on stage and made brief remarks of gratitude before departing. (His protégé of way back, Karl Malden, then aged 86, had pushed for the award and was seen leading a standing ovation by the rest of the audience.) Of course, if, and quite possibly when, a hate-America leftist like director Robert Altman, who called our flag a "joke" shortly after the attacks of September 11, is given such an award (he has with good reason never won a best direction Oscar in his three-decade career), those who were rude to Kazan will lead such an ovation they would create tremors beneath Los Angeles. And likewise if another hate-America director who has never won an Oscar, Martin Scorsesehe incisively condemned the Iraq War as a U.S. grab for oilreceives an honorary award. Such are the moral and artistic priorities of our Entertainment Capital, where today artists on Elia Kazan's exalted level are found only in legend.