ONE MAN DIRECTED “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Viva Zapata!,” “On the Waterfront,” “East of Eden,” “Baby Doll,” “A Face in the Crowd,” “Wild River,” “Splendor in the Grass” and “America America.” The other man directed “Swamp Woman,” “It Conquered the World,” “The She Gods of Shark Reef,” “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “Sorority Girl,” “The Viking Woman and the Sea Serpent,” “War of the Satellites,” “Teenage Caveman” and “Creature From the Haunted Sea.”
It must say something about our PC times that it is the second man, Roger Corman, whose greatest talent is arguably the ability to recognize and mobilize the talent of others, who will be honored on Tuesday with the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.’s Career Achievement Award. The first director, Elia Kazan, certainly one of the most skilled and influential figures of the post-World War II American cinema and still very much with us at 87, remains an artist without honor in his own country, a celebrated filmmaker whose name cannot be mentioned for fear of knee-jerk reactions of scorn and disgust, a two-time Oscar winner not only politically incorrect but politically unacceptable according to fashion and the dominant liberal-left Hollywood establishment.
Within the industry, it is no secret that, for many years, there were factions on the board of the American Film Institute that vigorously pushed to give Kazan the coveted Life Achievement Award. But there were also powerful board members adamantly opposed to honoring the work of a former Communist Party member (from 1934-36) who, having written off his political activism to youthful folly, famously named names of fellow Reds to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 and then, coincidentally or not, went on to the most productive decade of his film career while some of his steadfast former colleagues languished in prison or struggled to carve subterranean or foreign careers.
It is not difficult to see why a politically sensitive, high-profile organization such as the AFI declined to anoint Kazan, as much for reasons of fear of low TV ratings for its award broadcast as for the bad PR that would undoubtedly have resulted in certain circles. But the negative-to-hostile reaction to the mere proposal of Kazan’s name among most of my colleagues in the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. was stunning. I can interpret the failure of no more than three or four people in the group to endorse his nomination as a decision made exclusively on political grounds, with no regard to artistic matters.
The point is not to defend, excuse or rationalize what Kazan did; even he himself has not been entirely persuasive on the subject for 45 years, although this didn’t stop such staunch liberals as Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Kirk Douglas, Haskell Wexler and even his old comrade-in-arms Arthur Miller from working with him. The challenge is to get beyond his transgression, to look at the work and talk of other things as well.
But Kazan, for many people, represents a one-issue subject, a case closed, a man forever defined by one selfish act and never to be forgiven.
THE GENERAL LINE ON KAZAN seems to be that he was just a Bad Guy, an opportunist always looking out for No. 1, a man willing to sell his soul – and sell out his buddies – for the success he craved.
But if adultery, lack of ethics and professional ruthlessness were unpardonable sins in Hollywood, precious few awards would ever be given out. For all anyone knows, Oscars have been given to wife beaters, rapists and child molesters, to people whose misdeeds have been much more heinous than Kazan’s. His problem was that what he did was so public and so morally reprehensible to those who had counted him their friend. What has always mystified me about Kazan is why the stigma of naming names has always stuck to him so permanently, in a way that is it has not with such fellow cooperative HUAC witnesses as Jerome Robbins and Burl Ives.
WHAT THIS INTOLERANT ATTITUDE precludes is any discussion of Kazan’s work as a director, which may have been uneven and overwrought at times but arguably defines what serious cinema of the 1950s was all about. Even though he remained a man of the theater first, Kazan’s preoccupation with personal neuroses, sexuality both repressed and explosive, the torments of searching young people, pressing social issues and the particularity of the American experience put him on the expressive edge of his time.
His work with such writers as Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Budd Schulberg, Paul Osborn and William Inge represented some of the most vital collaborations of the era. But, above all, it was his talent with actors, his way of prodding them to dig deep, his channeling the lessons of the Method into the cinema that stands as Kazan’s lasting legacy.
After all they had been through together on “All My Sons” and “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway and on an aborted Hollywood project, no one would have been more justified in forever banishing Kazan from his life than Miller. And yet, when the occasion arose, in 1964, for Kazan to direct the playwright’s “After the Fall,” Miller was forced to sort out his feelings.
He came to the conclusion that, “What it came down to now was whether his political stance and even moral defection, if one liked, should permanently bar him from working in the theater. … If I still felt a certain distaste for Kazan’s renouncing his past under duress, I was not at all sure that he should be excluded from a position for which he was superbly qualified by his talent.”
Clearly, however, such clarity and generosity as Miller brought to the dilemma posed by Kazan’s difficult personality do not come easily to others, who have made sure that Kazan is to be excluded from any further honors or recognition in his lifetime.