Postage Paid: In Defense of Elia Kazan

October 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Elia Kazan 1979
Elia Kazan 1979

Between 1945 and 1957 Elia Kazan directed 10 crit­i­cally acclaimed motion pic­tures. He won Acad­emy Awards as best direc­tor for Gentleman’s Agree­ment (1947), and On the Water­front (1954). He was nom­i­nated for best direc­tor for two other films dur­ing that period, A Street­car Named Desire (1951), and East of Eden (1955). Kazan also directed two of the most pro­found and influ­en­tial dra­mas in Broad­way his­tory, A Street­car Named Desire (1947), and The Death of a Sales­man (1948). His novel The Arrange­ment, pub­lished in 1967, became a best seller.

Kazan came to the fore dur­ing the post-World War II years, arguably the most con­tro­ver­sial period in Hol­ly­wood his­tory. His films of the period con­tributed much to the rep­u­ta­tion of 20th Cen­tury Fox, and aug­mented fur­ther the lus­ter and bril­liance of Dar­ryl F. Zanuck. Kazan, nick­named “Gadge” was one of the great direc­tors of his time. His post-war films remain as pow­er­ful and com­pelling as any pro­duced in Amer­ica. For a period of 12 years Elia Kazan had no peer!


In Jan­u­ary 1952 Kazan was called before the House Com­mit­tee on Un-American Activ­i­ties (HUAC). In the early 1930s he had been a found­ing mem­ber of the left­ist “Group The­ater” in New York. And for a year and a half begin­ning in 1934 he was a mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Party. Kazan admit­ted in this ini­tial ses­sion that he had been a mem­ber of the Party while with the Group The­ater. He quit the Party, he claimed “in dis­gust”. He denied the accu­sa­tion that the Group The­ater was a “front” orga­ni­za­tion, and that its three direc­tors where Com­mu­nists. He was pressed by New York Con­gress­man Bernard Kear­ney to sup­ply the com­mit­tee with the names of other mem­bers in the Group The­ater he had known to be Com­mu­nists. He refused.

Group The­ater

Kazan and cast from Clifford Odets, "Waiting for Lefty"

Kazan and cast from Clif­ford Odets, “Wait­ing for Lefty”

By that spring Kazan began to have doubts about his tes­ti­mony before the com­mit­tee. Spy­ros Skouras, pres­i­dent of 20th Cen­tury Fox implied that if Kazan did not dis­close the other Group The­ater mem­bers he knew to be Com­mu­nists, that Kazan would never work in pic­tures again. He con­sulted with his friend, play­wright Arthur Miller. Miller said it would be a per­sonal dis­as­ter if Kazan was run out of the pic­ture busi­ness. Kazan and Miller had always been frank with each other about the Com­mu­nist busi­ness. Miller knew that, by now, Kazan was a fierce anti-Communist, but Kazan refrained from “red-baiting” around Miller. Arthur Miller was against the Mar­shall plan and the U.S. Pol­icy in Korea. In mak­ing his argu­ment to Miller, Kazan expressed “To defend a secrecy I don’t think right and to defend peo­ple who have already been named or soon would be by some­one else… I hate the Com­mu­nists and have for many years and don’t feel right about giv­ing up my career to defend them. I will give up my film career if it is in the inter­ests of defend­ing some­thing I believe in, but not this”. Miller put his arm around Kazan and retorted, “don’t worry about what I’ll think. What­ever you do is okay with me, because I know that your heart is in the right place”. Among the names Kazan gave the com­mit­tee that spring were the great writer Clif­ford Odets, (who him­self would later “name names”), Lee and Paula Stras­burg, Lil­lian Hell­man, Joe Bromberg, and John Garfield.


After the tes­ti­mony, Kazan was maligned in toto. The “Nation” mag­a­zine slurred him with the lie that he did it all to save a Fox con­tract. The truth is that Dar­ryl Zanuck called him into his office and explained that because Kazan was now such a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure the stu­dio could not pay his salary for the final pic­ture remain­ing on his con­tract. “I had become an easy mark for every self-righteous prick in New York and Hol­ly­wood”. He drew Arthur Miller’s scorn in a let­ter Miller wrote to the “New York Post”. A side note here regard­ing Mar­lon Brando. Clif­ford Odets had a brief con­ver­sa­tion with Brando before Odets gave tes­ti­mony before the com­mit­tee. “That was a ter­ri­ble thing Gadge did in Wash­ing­ton,” Brando said. “I’m not going to work with him any­more. But he’s good for me. Maybe I’ll work with him a cou­ple of more times, at least once.” Brando’s alien­ation was not so final that he refused On the Water­front.

"Viva Zapata", 1952

Viva Zap­ata”, 1952

Many years later Kazan said Viva Zap­ata, which he was film­ing dur­ing the time of his com­mit­tee tes­ti­mony, “was struc­tured to expose the inef­fec­tive­ness of ide­al­is­tic rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, I believe that democ­racy pro­gresses, through internecine war, through con­stant ten­sion –we grow only through con­flict. And that’s what democ­racy is. In that sense, peo­ple have to be vig­i­lant, and that vig­i­lance is effec­tive. I truly believe that all power cor­rupts. Such is prob­a­bly the think­ing behind every polit­i­cal film ever made in Hol­ly­wood”. This was a pro­found state­ment about his val­ues and beliefs. Kazan never backed away from his state­ments. He declared sev­eral years later, “within two years I had no regrets”.

Life­time Achieve­ment Award

On March 21,  1999 Elia Kazan, age 89, received the Life­time Achieve­ment Award from the Acad­emy of Motion Pic­ture Arts and Sci­ences. Already the extreme Hol­ly­wood Left is cry­ing foul. For the past 50 years, resent­ment for Kazan has con­tin­ued unabated. J. Hober­man, critic for the New York’s Vil­lage Voice, admits that while Kazan’s career is wor­thy, the award is hyp­o­crit­i­cal. “There’s never been an indus­try acknowl­edg­ment of the careers that the black­list cost”, if that has any­thing to do with Kazan’s merit? Bit­ter and unre­lent­ing, writer/director, Abra­ham Polon­sky quipped, “I’ll be watch­ing, hop­ing some­one shoots him. It would no doubt be a thrill in an oth­er­wise dull evening.” Its As though Kazan was respon­si­ble for the trans­gres­sions of the entire period. Prob­a­bly the most absurd state­ment regard­ing the Life­time Achieve­ment Award comes from Rod Steiger whom Kazan directed in On the Water­front. Steiger said it wasn’t until the end of shoot­ing that he learned of Kazan’s coop­er­a­tion with HUAC. And in which galaxy was Mr. Steiger resid­ing in 1952? “It was like I found out my father was sleep­ing with my sis­ter”, he said. A bit over the top, even for the impe­ri­ous Steiger!

The lone voice of rea­son seems to be that of “Los Angles Times” film critic Ken­neth Thran, who adds, “The only cri­te­rion for an award like this is the work”. The film­maker has already been denied acco­lades from “The Amer­i­can Film Insti­tute”, and the “Los Angles Film Crit­ics Asso­ci­a­tions”. It’s time for the Acad­emy to rec­og­nize this genius. We applauded when the great Chap­lin finally had his hour. It’s now time for Elia Kazan. To deny him now would be akin to keep­ing Pete Rose out of the base­ball Hall of Fame.

Michael Mills

About Michael Mills
Rank-amateur photographer, I like Classic films, real Jazz, Opera, and a little Hank Williams . . . and sometimes baseball . . .