A talent for telling stories and making enemies

Passion ruled life, politics and movies of Elia Kazan


October 05, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

Elia Kazan was all about passion. He put it on the screen, he infused his life with it, and he elicited it from all manner of audiences.

Few directors have engendered so much controversy in their lifetimes, or hewn so stubbornly to beliefs that, while perhaps not universally popular, were definitely their own. When he died last Sunday at his New York home, Kazan left a legacy that critics and commentators still will be wrestling with decades from now. For each bit of praise lavished upon a master craftsman, there's a social libertarian demonizing the man who ratted on his friends, who named names during the McCarthy era, destroying careers and legitimizing a government-sponsored witch hunt.

Whatever one thinks of his politics, Kazan's artistry is undeniable. He directed at least a half-dozen great movies -- Gentle-man's Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Water-front, East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd and Splendor in the Grass -- and at least that many more good ones. And his movies made a difference, sometimes in the way we think (Gentleman's shed a light on anti-Semitism that desperately needed to be shed), sometimes in the way we watch movies (the raw emotions of Streetcar hit audiences like a bomb blast), sometimes in the way movies are made (is there an actor today who doesn't try to channel Marlon Brando in Waterfront?)

Kazan was already an accomplished Broadway director when he hit Hollywood; his first film was 1945's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Two years later, he won his first Oscar, for Gentleman's Agreement, starring Gregory Peck as a magazine writer pretending to be Jewish to experience bigotry firsthand.

Seen today, the film seems simplistic and outdated -- certainly, far too earnest to be effective on modern audiences. But this was brave filmmaking for 1947, and the movie shouldn't be faulted for tailoring its message to its time.

Gentleman's Agreement may have been the pet project of 20th Century-Fox chief Darryl F. Za-nuck (one of the few studio heads at the time who was not Jewish), but it was Kazan's movie; his stage experience translates effortlessly to the screen. In a film where character is everything, Kazan challenged his actors to rivet the audiences' attention with their best work, and they did (Celeste Holm won an Oscar, and John Garfield was never better). Kazan may have later criticized the picture , but it gave him the high profile he needed to begin changing the Hollywood landscape.

An actor's director

The same year Gentleman's was released, Kazan was directing Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. Acclaimed as a benchmark American drama, this tale of conflicting cultures in the genteel Southern city of New Orleans was brought to the screen in 1951. It was the director's first undisputed classic, a film that has since lost none of its power to provoke and shock.

It would be hard to imagine a better cast for the movie. That's not surprising, since Kazan brought almost the entire Broadway ensemble with him, including Brando as Stanley Kowalski, the brutish, sexually charged husband whose wounded-wolf cries of "Stella!" would force critics and audiences to come up with new adjectives. Stanley was raw and sensual and nothing but rough edges, and Brando (under Kazan's guidance) made no attempt to smooth over anything.

The play wasn't all sunshine and light either, especially Stanley's climactic rape of his sister-in-law, Blanche (Vivien Leigh, who would win her second best-actress Oscar). The censors went apoplectic, and almost kept the film from being made, much less released. Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed, and the movie, although considerably watered down from what Kazan had been presenting onstage, became one of the year's biggest hits.

Again, Kazan elicited amazing performances from his cast. In addition to Leigh, Kim Hunter (as Stella, Stanley's pregnant wife) and Karl Malden (as Blanche's shy suitor) also won Oscars. Only Humphrey Bogart's best-actor nod for The African Queen, beating out Brando, kept the film from making an unprecedented clean sweep of the acting awards. (No film has ever been more honored for acting).

Kazan was at the top of his game, but there were dark rumblings. Even as he prepared for Oscar night in 1952, nervous about how Streetcar would fare, a congressional committee looking for Communist influence over Hollywood was investigating him.

In January of that year, he had admitted to his former membership in the Communist Party but refused to implicate anyone else. Over the next four months, things changed. Fearful that his dalliance in a political movement he now despised would threaten his career, Kazan offered to testify again. This time, he offered up the names of seven actors and one playwright (Clifford Odets) who also had been active in the party.

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