Judging Kazan

“Believe me, if a Turk could get out of Turkey and come here, even now, he would kiss the ground. To oppressed people, America is still a dream.”

This quote from Elia Kazan (Elias Kazantzoglou, 1909-1934), was in specific reference to his scene in America, America (1963) in which he depicts a character based on his uncle arriving at Ellis Island and kissing the ground, within sight of the Statue of Liberty. The image has dimensions both political and artistic that are worth addressing. Kazan has been vilified by both the right and left; it speaks to the power of his art, I think, that his body of work has survived the controversies. His movies still live and breathe and circulate. I don’t know anyone who boycotts them, for example, for making his difficult choice. Some may have harsh words for him, but in the end, I think most people acknowledge that it’s not simple.

Kazan was an Anatolian Greek, a population that had occupied the region since ancient times, centuries longer than the Turks who oppressed them. His family finally managed to escape to America as depicted in the aforementioned film, where his father, a rug merchant, was able to send him to college. He attended Yale and Julliard and became involved with the Group Theatre under Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, where he was nicknamed “Gadge” on account of his practical knack for solving problems having to do with the machinery of the theatre. He was a stage manager and bit player with the company initially, gradually working his way up to important parts in the original productions of Clifford Odets plays like Waiting for Lefty (1935), Paradise Lost (1935-36), Golden Boy (1937-38) and Night Music (1940). During these years he was a member of the Communist Party, and anyone who has read accounts of their behavior in relationship to the Group Theatre will not be so immediately sympathetic to them or their cause. Did Joseph McCarthy and HUAC suck? Were they bullies and opportunists with autocratic tendencies? Yes, intolerably so. But what do you think Communists acting under orders from Stalin’s Moscow were? It’s chilling to read about how they attempted to dictate the activities of the company, and how they demanded 100% obedience from their members. Ultimately, Kazan had enough and quit, and certainly his memory of the sinister, rather ruthless way the Party behaved in the ’30s — to fellow leftists and liberals, no less — informed the conclusions he came to (with great difficulty yet) a couple of decades later.

Meantime, in the early ’40s Kazan became a Broadway director, and soon after that (1945) a Hollywood film director, and soon after that (1947), a co-founder of the country’s most influential acting academy, The Actor’s Studio. His stage and screen work seems all of a piece; it seems misguided to separate the theatrical productions from the films. Here we list the most notable: the original Broadway production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (1942); the Broadway musical One Touch of Venus (1943); the screen adaptation of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945); the Broadway premier of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947); the landmark film Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) which dealt with anti-Semitism; the original stage productions of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947-49); and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949-50), the Hollywood movie Pinky (1949) which dealt with Southern racism; the 1951 movie version of Streetcar; Viva Zapata! (1952), the original Broadway production of Williams’ Camino Reale and Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy (1953), the moving Cold War circus drama Man on a Tightrope (1953), the movies of Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront (1954) and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1955); the Broadway debut of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955); the film Baby Doll (1956), which was adapted from Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton; Schulberg’s chilling (and prescient) cinematic satire A Face in the Crowd (1957); the Broadway premier of William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957-59), the Broadway premier of Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. (1958-59), the Broadway premiere of Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth (1959); the movies Wild River (1960), Splendor in the Grass (1961, scripted by Inge), and America, America (1963), and the theatrical premiere of Miller’s After the Fall (1964).

In the mid ’60s Kazan was co-director of the Repertory Theatre at Lincoln Center, a noble failure which seems to have taken the wind out of his sails. His remaining three films were much more modest and forgotten affairs, The Arrangement (1969, based on his best-selling 1967 novel), The Visitors (1972), and the 1976 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, and he advised his second wife Barbara Loden on her 1970 film Wanda.

I’ve left out tons of his credits. Kazan was pretty umabiguously the most important dramatic director of his time, working with the top writers and giving the world peak performances by the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Julie Harris, Eli Wallach, Karl Malden, Montgomery Clift, et al. While the Method Acting he championed is most often associated with realism or naturalism, it should be remembered that several of those works by Williams and Miller in particular were directed with expressionistic scenography. And, I beg you to recall the scene we opened this post with. THAT is straight-up, over-the-top showmanship, which Kazan himself acknowledged. And long acquaintance with both Kazan’s body of work, and the history of American melodrama will help you to realize that he was working within an aesthetic tradition. Radical realism would be something like Loden’s Wanda. Whereas, think of the pictorial sentimentalizing of poverty in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Or Pinky, which is in the tradition of the “tragic stage mulatto” which was a century old by that point. Kazan was a crowd pleaser. It was Odets, without Kazan, who gave us The Big Knife.

Odets was one of the names Kazan named when called before HUAC in 1952. The two men had agreed to name each other. Unfortunately Kazan also named Morris Carnovsky, Art Smith, and others, harming their careers. It was not Kazan’s finest moment. Yet it was also not a moment he CHOSE. He didn’t seek to testify, he was compelled to testify. True, he didn’t refuse or assert his Fifth Amendment rights, as many did, but he also wasn’t out there proactively looking to ruin anyone’s lives. He agonized over the decision. He discussed it with all of his friends for days and weeks. And, while McCarthy and his bunch were loathsome and contrary to everything America is supposed to stand for, so (as too many seem to conveniently forget or acknowledge) were Stalin and his bunch. If you think it is an easy call — God forbid you should ever be called upon to make it. Further, Kazan didn’t JOIN the Right Wing, he continued to oppose it. He hated them for forcing him into that position. If he had become some flaming neo-con and had a gleeful time going around busting everyone in Hollywood in order to get in good with the Fascists in Washington that would be one thing. That is far from what he did. Look at it from this perspective: his family was promised freedom. A generation later, some American petty tyrants forced Kazan to choose between his friends or his own livelihood. It seems to me he did the best he could, given this country’s failure to deliver what’s generally advertised about us.

If you think I’m siding with the Right in this case, you’re crackers. In recent times we came terrifyingly close to what Americans went through in the ’50s (and worse), as one of Roy Cohn’s chief acolytes actually had control of our executive branch of government. America seemed perilously on the verge of becoming Turkey, and as of this writing that danger has not fled. One image that has sustained me through these dark years has been something that looks a lot like that Ellis Island immigrant. Context. Context and perspective. If you wanted to boo Kazan in the thick of the fray in 1952, that’s thoroughly understandable. If you booed him from the comfort of 1999 (as some did when he came up to accept on honorary Oscar), you’ll forgive me if I don’t automatically regard you as a hero.

Kazan’s son Nicholas (b. 1945) is a screenwriter and playwright and occasional director and producer. His works include Patty Hearst (1988), the Von Bulow true crime pic Reversal of Fortune (1990), the erotic thriller Dream Lover (1993), the 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the critically panned Robin Williams vehicle Bicentennial Man (1999), and Blood Moon (2016) starring his daughter Maya. His other daughter is actress Zoe Kazan.