- The Washington Times - Friday, October 3, 2003

Elia Kazan believed that two questions needed to be asked when considering heroes and villains. In the case of the hero: “What’s wrong with him?” In the case of the villain: “What’s his good side?”

An actor, director, novelist and figure of enduring controversy, Mr. Kazan died in Manhattan last weekend at the age of 94. By the time he published a prodigious autobiography, “A Life,” in 1988, Mr. Kazan had become a confessional maestro of ambivalence. He chronicled his life and career with a sometimes brutal candor. Every chapter seemed a freshly opened book, even as he approached a last reckoning about all his self-conflicted struggles.

He enjoyed his greatest artistic success as a director, of course. From about 1947 to 1957, there was no more charismatic or provocative name associated with dramatic plays and movies than Elia Kazan.

A long and often discouraging apprenticeship with the Group Theatre during the 1930s culminated in Mr. Kazan’s Broadway breakthrough with Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” in 1942. By the end of the decade, when he also had Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” to his credit, Mr. Kazan appeared to own the inside track to the Pulitzer Prize.

During 1947, the same year “Streetcar” was mesmerizing theater audiences, Mr. Kazan confirmed his value in Hollywood by directing a high-minded Academy Award-winner for producer Darryl F. Zanuck, “Gentleman’s Agreement.” He later disparaged it as too polite in its methods of discrediting anti-Semitism, but it’s difficult to envision a popular polemical film of the late 1940s that wouldn’t have been cautious to a fault.

Mr. Kazan underrated his movie’s erotic tension and glamour, now an enduring source of fascination in the interplay between co-stars Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire. They anticipate the sexual frankness and pathos in subsequent, albeit earthier, Kazan matches in “Streetcar,” “On the Waterfront,” “Baby Doll,” “A Face in the Crowd” and “Splendor in the Grass.”

Mr. Kazan always thought of his theater experience as preparation for an eventual career directing movies. He credited his Group Theatre mentors, Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg, with an outlook that reinforced his movie aspirations: “They made me feel that the performing arts, theater and film, can be as meaningful as the drama of living itself.”

We’re probably fortunate that there is an authoritative movie version of the original production of “Streetcar,” with Broadway cast members Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden joined by Vivien Leigh, a neurotically supercharged outsider from the London company. Mr. Kazan resisted filming his theater triumphs; he relented in this case only. It’s difficult to believe he would have settled for the lackluster “Death of a Salesman” that reached the screen in 1951.

Mr. Kazan professed to distrust success, especially as it affected actors. Instrumental in advancing the film careers of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Carroll Baker, Lee Remick and Warren Beatty, among others, he said, “I try to catch my actors at the moment when they’re still, or once again, human.” He was thinking specifically of Natalie Wood in “Splendor in the Grass” when using the term “once again” because she was in a career slump when he cast her opposite newcomer Mr. Beatty in 1961.

Actors “all use success to isolate themselves, to keep aloof from experiencing life,” Mr. Kazan said. “The more success an actor has, the more he acquires the look of wax fruit; he is no longer devoured by life. Most of the characters he plays must be.”

Recalling the production of “On the Waterfront,” Mr. Kazan exulted in memories of how cold it was in the winter of 1953-54. Cast members were expected to tough it out in the streets and on the rooftops of Hoboken, N.J. “They didn’t have that lovely flesh of success,” he said, chortling.

He also described “Waterfront” repeatedly as “my ideal of how to make movies.” Even the ominous aspects seemed precious in retrospect. “It was about an issue that was being decided as we made the picture,” he explained. “We were on trial every day. Crowds of people watched us shoot. There used to be all the gangsters we described in the picture. They’d come up. Once a guy grabbed me and was going to beat me up. A longshoreman beat him up.”

Some hostilities lasted a lifetime. In 1952, Mr. Kazan laid the groundwork for an enduring reputation on the political left as a snitch by testifying about his Communist Party membership two decades earlier. He belonged to a furtive party cell that was expected to manipulate both the Group Theatre and the New York chapter of Actor’s Equity. He quit in shame and anger but without ever publicly acknowledging a break. This timidity gnawed at him during a successful career ascent.

Mr. Kazan’s confession of a treacherous party membership never prompted massive resentment among former friends and colleagues. What did was his willingness to cite the names of eight fellow party members during an executive session with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (which had been familiar with all the names for some time) and then publish an anti-communist mea culpa for all to read. Enough die-hard resentment still could be rallied in 1999 to trigger protests against a decision of the Academy Award board of governors to present Mr. Kazan with an honorary Oscar for career achievement.

He had won twice before as best director, for “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “On the Waterfront.” The underdog status of the latter made its dominance of the 1954 Oscars especially gratifying to him. “A New York picture,” Mr. Kazan recalled, “made inexpensively by a lot of people like [producer] Sam Spiegel, who was a clown, and I, who was persona non grata, and Budd [Schulberg, the screenwriter], who wasn’t anything much then either. The fact that we beat

them all was a great pleasure to me.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide