Book softens Elia Kazan’s reputation
By Arthur Spiegelman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – He was one of Hollywood’s and
Broadway’s greatest directors and the canon of American
literature owes him mightily for being the midwife who brought
“Death of a Salesman” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” to life.
But today the legacy of Elia Kazan — the man who also
helped mold Marlon Brando and James Dean into world-class
actors and establish the careers of Tennessee Williams and
Arthur Miller — is overshadowed, obliterated for some, by
one’s day testimony before the communist-hunting House
Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.
Kazan named 16 names, including a close friend who agreed
to be named, and two Communist Party functionaries, all of whom
may have been known to the committee before Kazan’s deposition.
And then in the major mistake of his career, he took out an ad
in the New York Times defending what he did — becoming fixed
in Hollywood folklore as the symbol of the informer. Even his
most famous movie, “On the Waterfront,” came to be viewed by
some critics as a spirited defense of naming names.
Now, a 544-page biography by film historian and Time
magazine film critic Richard Schickel tries to set the record
straight and give Kazan, who died in 2003 at age 94, the credit
that he deserves as a torrential force of American film and
theater. He was perhaps the country’s dominant director from
the mid-1940s through the early 1960s before assignments dried
up and he wound up writing mass market bestsellers that
bordered on the unreadable.
At the same time, Schickel’s book “Elia Kazan” opens up old
wounds and argues that the director’s “crime,” the one for
which many in Hollywood never forgave him, was a legitimate
response by a man who had turned on the party some 17 years
before his testimony and considered it a threat to democratic
“Kazan was opposed to them … He didn’t just
opportunistically rat out his friends,” Schickel said in a
Schickel also quotes Kazan as saying at the time that he
would give up making movies for a worthwhile cause, but this
was not it.
“What the hell am I giving up this up for, to defend a
secrecy I didn’t think right and to defend people who’d already
been named or soon would be by someone else? I said I hated the
Communists for many years and didn’t feel right about giving up
my career to defend them.”
But years later Kazan admitted deep regrets. “I thought
what a terrible thing I had done; not the political aspect of
it because maybe that was correct but it didn’t matter now.
Correct or not, all that mattered was the human side of things.
I felt no political cause was worth hurting another human being
Kazan’s critics pretended that he never expressed regrets
and staged ugly scenes leading up to and including the 1999
Academy Awards where Kazan received an honorary Oscar. About a
third of the audience at the Oscars refused to join a standing
Schickel, who was compiling a montage of film clips about
Kazan for the Oscar program met resistance from Marlon Brando
who refused to allow any clip with him in it being shown.
That meant that if Brando got his way, which he didn’t, no
one would have seen scenes from “On The Waterfront” and
Such was the emotion of the moment, but Schickel says look
far beyond the results of that one “Dog Day’s Afternoon” in the
life of Elia Kazan and try to come to terms with the magic he
brought to the screen.
“He changed acting on the screen by getting actors to
externalize their internal feelings — as a way to get on
screen what people are thinking about, what is moving them. It
is different than movie acting which produced fabulous actors
like James Cagney and Cary Grant but we never saw this kind of
externalization of inner states before.
“Within a decade, our whole idea of judging a movie
performance was turned upside down.”