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Elia Kazan: A balancing act of the artist’s work and his actions

1950: Turkish-born film director Elia Kazan (1909 - 2003) directs a scene on the set of his film 'Panic in the Streets' on location in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

A new celebration of Elia Kazan’s work poses a timely question of how to balance art with the actions of those who made it. JAMES OLIVER reports

If you watched it on television you might never have guessed that anything was amiss. But then, the Academy Awards have always been averse to controversy. This was 1999; all the folks at home were shown was an old guy on stage collecting his honorary award. They didn’t see the protestors outside, nor those in the audience ostentatiously refusing to clap a man they despised.

The old guy in question was Elia Kazan and that ceremony offers a neat summary of his life. There’s no doubt he deserved tribute; he was one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century, a man whose gargantuan impact on theatre and movies reverberates still, and whose work is being celebrated in a retrospective at the BFI Southbank throughout this month.

But the detestation is just as easy to understand: during the Red Scare of the 1950s (“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?”), he played ball. He named names. He told the witch-hunters what they wanted to know. He sold out friends and colleagues for his own advantage.

Kazan himself had been a communist once. He joined during the 1930s, a time when a great many socially conscious people did so, a response to fascism in Europe and angry American nativism. He was at the start of his career then, just starting to make his name on the New York stage, part of an organisation – the Group Theatre, they called themselves – dedicated to overturning the traditional shibboleths of Broadway.

This they would do not just by sponsoring new writing – the Group championed plays about ‘the common man’ – but also new forms of acting. Taking their cues from the Russian Konstantin Stanislavski, they emphasised a process that drew on a performer’s own emotional experiences to bring themselves closer to the character they played.

Kazan himself had started as an actor but gravitated to directing. When the Group broke up in 1941 – the usual problems: money, ego – Kazan flourished, directing plays and nurturing actors; in 1947 he co-founded the Actors Studio with fellow Group alumnus Stella Adler to train young actors in the techniques they’d developed. This technique they called ‘the method’ and, thanks almost entirely to their combined efforts, it became a new American orthodoxy: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Anne Bancroft all trained at the Actors Studio.

By this time, he wasn’t a commie anymore. In fact, he’d jacked that in within 18 months; being a communist meant obedience and Kazan was too truculent for that – he wasn’t going to have some jumped-up commissar giving him orders.

Besides, the reds probably wouldn’t approve of his new-found prosperity. Success on Broadway had caught Hollywood’s eye; in 1945 he made an auspicious movie debut with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. As with his (on-going) theatre work, he stressed psychological realism in his movies, inspiring his actors – whether Hollywood pros like Gregory Peck (Gentleman’s Agreement) and Dana Andrews (Boomerang!) or newcomers like Jack Palance (Panic in the Streets) – to deliver some of their best performances.

By 1950, Kazan was one of the titans of American arts, a leading filmmaker – he’d won an Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement – and theatre director; he handled the first productions of both Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, two of the most significant American plays of… well, ever.

(For Streetcar…, incidentally, he’d rejected the well-meant advice to cast a star like John Garfield or Burt Lancaster in the role of the brutish Stanley and instead took a flyer on an awkward young man he knew from the Actor’s Studio, Marlon Brando, who, under Kazan’s tutelage, became a star. Later on, Kazan would do the same for James Dean in East of Eden and Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass.)

It was around this time he started to get invitations to talk to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the body that had taken it upon themselves to probe communist infiltration of Hollywood. His history, and his current success, made him a prime target but he declined, at least at first. That changed on April 10, 1952, when he sat down and gave his testimony, naming people – friends of his, at least once – who had joined the party.

He was the most high-profile ‘friendly’ witness to talk to the committee and the one whose testimony caused the biggest shock to those on the left: he might have left the Communist party but he was still a liberal, and liberals were supposed to revile HUAC and all its works. Weren’t they?

Kazan himself claimed it was a matter of principle. Soon after news of his testimony broke, he shelled out for a long self-exculpatory advert in the New York Times, letting it be known he thought communism was a “dangerous alien conspiracy” and railing against idiotic “liberals” who allowed it to flourish.

The trouble is, there weren’t many who believed him; most just thought he was being opportunistic – those who didn’t play ball with HUAC were sometimes blacklisted, so throwing a few old friends under a bus was an easy way for Kazan to make sure his career wouldn’t suffer. The actor Richard Dreyfuss spoke for many who sat on their hands at the Oscars in 1999 when he said Kazan’s “anti-communist crusade lasted as long as his testimony”.

People might have been more forgiving of him if there was any sign he agonised over the decision or that he was under pressure or revealed any doubt but, in public at least, Kazan refused to acknowledge any sign of frailty. What’s more, he wouldn’t let people forget what he’d done: as if the rambling New York Times advert wasn’t bad enough, Kazan sought to justify himself again with his next picture.

This was On the Waterfront, his best known, and (arguably) best film, a triumph of realistic, on-location shooting – it was shot where it’s set, around the mob-dominated New York docks – with a powerhouse performance from Brando; this is the film where he “could have been a contender”, reminding you just how good he really was.

The character Brando plays is a dock worker who, finally appalled by the filth of the mob, finds the courage to stand up and testify against them, defying the bullies and cowards who call him a stool pigeon. It is not difficult to detect a subtext in this defence of the informer. “On the Waterfront was my story,” Kazan wrote in his eventual autobiography, A Life. “Everyday I worked on that film I was telling the world where I stood, and my critics to go and f**k themselves.” His critics heard that message loud and clear.

But On the Waterfront was more than just a raised middle finger to his enemies. Before HUAC, Kazan had been a worthwhile director who handled his films to the best of his ability. On the Waterfront, however, was something else. It marked the beginning of Kazan as a mature film artist: in an echo of the advice he imparted so often to his actors, he began to draw on his own experiences and feelings.

His testimony galvanised Kazan, driving him to explore his own contradictions and deficiencies. Or at least so he thought: “The only good and original films I’ve made, I made after my testimony,” he wrote in A Life. “The ones before were professionally adept. The ones after were personal. They came out of me.”

The later films are Kazan’s major work: East of Eden, taken from John Steinbeck but far more sympathetic to the tortured outsider than the novelist ever was; Wild River, a sort-of post-western about a rural family uprooted by a well-meaning government man to make way for a new hydroelectric dam down river, and A Face in the Crowd, a depressingly prescient satire of the media and political demagogues.

The correlation between his life and the stories he was telling isn’t always as obvious as in On the Waterfront but these are deeper, richer films than before; the psychology more complex, the answers less easy. The work of a more introspective man.

It’s unlikely that there will be any protestors picketing the BFI Southbank during the latest season. The anger at Kazan is less visceral now; he died in 2003 and there’s less energy to re-fight old battles.

Still, it’s a story that echoes into our own time: the balancing act that any appreciation of Kazan requires – how the work is weighed against the life of the man who made it – anticipates conversations we’re having today. His transgressions are surely less than those of Roman Polanski or Michael Jackson but it’s still not quite possible to discuss the films without mentioning them.

Elia Kazan was a major artist, as the BFI Southbank season should remind us. But he was also a willing participant – the poster boy in the modern vernacular – in one of the darkest chapters of American history. It would require a figure even greater than he to resolve that contradiction.

The Elia Kazan season runs at the BFI Southbank through February; On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd out now on Criterion Collection Blu-ray.

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