September 25, 2018

Curtain Call for Elia Kazan

The next time you want to glimpse a bit of Hollywood history, check out the video of that wonderful 1940s John Garfield film, “Body and Soul,” which was written by Abraham Polonsky and directed by Robert Rossen. If you look closely, you will see several scenes in which a small-time hood, working for the film’s corrupt boxing manager, muscles Garfield’s boyhood chum and acting manager, only to be savagely whipped in turn by Garfield himself.

The actor playing the hoodlum has not a single line in the film, but, if you watch the credits carefully, you will see that he was played by Elia Kazan. Six years later, Kazan was the reigning theater director on Broadway, with such credits as “Death of a Salesman” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” while Garfield and Polonsky were blacklisted for past political affiliations and for failing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. So much for irony, history and symbolic politics.

As it happens, Kazan was one of those Hollywood figures who named names — eight, in fact, who had had some affiliation with the Communist Party, as had Kazan himself for a brief period in the 1930s — to members of HUAC. Now, nearly 50 years later, Kazan will receive from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscar ceremonies for his career and accomplishments as a film director. What are we to make of this, and how are we to respond?

On one side, there is the long-standing disdain for Kazan’s behavior. In the 1950s, actors, directors and writers watched, first in wonder and then in fear, as their careers were terminated, their lives ruined. All because of past — and in some cases, present — beliefs. Polonsky, for example, went from “Body and Soul” to write and direct Garfield in that gritty, splendid film, “Force of Evil,” only to find himself out of the film business as a director for 18 years. (He wrote scripts under a pseudonym for much less money.) Shut out of Hollywood, Garfield ultimately returned to the New York stage in a play by Clifford Odets.

Not surprisingly, there has been considerable bitterness toward Kazan. In the 1950s, Arthur Miller ended his friendship with the director after Kazan named names. One writer who had been blacklisted and, indeed, served time in prison, once told me that he was willing to let it pass by, but that his actress wife would leave a party when Kazan showed up. And the members of the academy itself have through the years vetoed any award for Kazan, now 89.

Until now. At the instigation of board member Karl Malden, a longtime loyal actor friend of Kazan, who had roles in “Streetcar” and the film “On the Waterfront,” the academy this year finally voted to honor the director. His achievement is impressive: Kazan directed, among other films, “Boomerang!” “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “Face in a Crowd,” “On the Waterfront,” “Viva Zapata!” and “East of Eden.”

Of course, there has been a backlash. Bernard Gordon, another blacklisted writer, has begun to campaign for some demonstration — a silent vigil outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before the Oscars show, and no applause for Kazan by members of the academy when the Lifetime Award itself is presented. Victor Navasky, the publisher of The Nation and author of “Naming Names,” the definitive book on the history of the blacklist, has jokingly suggested that perhaps the plaque the director receives should have “Elia Kazan” engraved on the front and the names he named listed on the back — a reminder of sorts, for him and for every member of the academy.

The anger is still so intense, not only at Kazan’s betrayal of friends and colleagues but also for his legitimizing HUAC, whose congressional behavior in the 1950s and early 1960s was such a low point in the political history of America. The fact that the government enforced punitive action against citizens for their beliefs would itself seem to be, on the face of it, very un-American. To have aided HUAC, appeared to Kazan’s critics (and to me), disgraceful.

And yet… and yet– all these expressions of anger and distaste aside — should Kazan receive recognition for his lifetime work as a film director? I have to side reluctantly with those who say yes. Part of this response has to do with my feelings about other artists. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are two of my favorite poets despite their political and anti-Semitic beliefs. Celine remains a great 20th-century novelist, no matter that he collaborated with the Germans and was a vicious Jew hater. And Henry James and Henry Adams, misguided WASPs though they perhaps were, nevertheless were brilliant American writers.

Even right-wing director Cecil B. DeMille would receive my vote, although his attempt to drum out of the Director’s Guild left-thinking colleagues strikes me as reprehensible. The point being: Recognition is for achievement, not for personal behavior or political belief. And while I find Kazan’s gritty realism a bit overdone and melodramatic in most of his films, he still seems, to me, one of our great directors. Lifetime achievement calls forth respect and admiration for his professional work, not for his character or his behavior off the set.

I want to add a personal note, one that I am still trying to sift through and understand.

Once about 40 years ago, an assignment brought me directly to Kazan himself. I joined him late one afternoon at his home, a comfortable, spacious townhouse on East 72nd Street. He was a wiry man then, just under 50, dressed in a workman’s flannel shirt that was open at the collar. While he was unpretentious and easygoing, he was also assertive and made sure I knew he was in total command.

Then, one of his sons walked into the room. He was home from Harvard on school break. Kazan introduced me, his voice rising slightly. He was talking to me, but performing for his son, trying to get his attention, to force him to interact.

To say the least, I was surprised. But the son clearly knew his father. He gave no reaction, yielded not an inch. Kazan’s voice lifted yet again. Clearly, he wanted to reach his son and, just as clearly, was not going to succeed.

That was a time before I had had any children, and long before I had a 19-year-old son of my own. But I always remembered that scene: Kazan and I talking about a manuscript, he dominating the dialogue, and then the sudden vulnerability when his college-age son entered the room. In a strange way, that I don’t fully comprehend, it’s that human image of Kazan which stands out most strongly for me — beyond politics and beyond ideology. — Gene Lichtenstein