Postage Paid: In Defense of Elia Kazan
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.
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.
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.