Kazan: Vilified namer of names, socially conscious auteur

Body of work contrasts ‘controversy that plagued its creator’

By Trav S.D.

In the annals of Hollywood, no more polarizing figure exists than director Elia Kazan. Vilified by his peers for naming names during the Red Scare of the 1940s and 50s, he was at the same time one of the era’s most significant directors. When the Oscars presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, some boycotted the ceremony; among those attended, some refused to applaud. The crowning irony is that Kazan was not only among the mid-twentieth century’s major auteurs — he was also one of its most socially conscious.

The Film Forum’s retrospective (October 9-29) covers the full sweep and scope of this complex artist’s achievements. 

Kazan launched his film career with serious street cred as a theatre artist. An actor with the legendary left-wing ensemble the Group Theatre (nicknamed Gadge because he was initially the Group’s handy man), Kazan was to first make his name as the director of groundbreaking Broadway dramas like “All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

It didn’t take long for Hollywood to notice, giving Kazan the opportunity to make an unbroken string of critical and popular cinematic successes lasting the better part of two decades — starting with the elegiac 1945 weepie “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (Oct. 20) and continuing through his autobiographical epic from 1963, “America, America” (Oct. 12). After that, his output (and his impact) diminished. His last film was a low-key adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel “The Last Tycoon” (Oct. 22), which starred Robert DeNiro and was released in 1976.  

“Kazan was not only the most important stage director if his generation — by far — he became the most important film director of his generation,” says Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum’s Director of Programming. “Great stage directors rarely make the transition to film, but Kazan was the major exception.” 

The 1951 film version of his 1947 stage hit “A Streetcar Named Desire” (Oct. 18-19) is the lone stage-to-screen example of his career. But it was a benchmark for both Kazan and its star, method actor par excellence Marlon Brando.

Kazan’s rapport with actors and playwrights is evident in all his work; from 1954’s iconic film about union corruption “On the Waterfront” (Oct. 9-10) which showcased Brando’s improvisatory genius — to 1955’s “East of Eden” (Oct. 11-12), which starred James Dean (often referred to at the time as the “new Brando”) — to the 1956 film “Baby Doll” (Oct. 14-15), which is an adaptation of “Streetcar” author Tennessee Williams’ stage play “27 Wagons Full of Cotton.” 

But Kazan’s theatrical grounding colored even his works with less obvious ties to the stage. 

“Kazan brought a new maturity to American movies,” says Goldstein. “The first successful adaptation of Tennessee Williams to the screen; themes that had been previously verboten (like racism and anti-Semitism). With “Streetcar” and “Baby Doll,” he challenged some of the restrictive censorship standards of his day.” 

Examples of Kazan’s willingness to challenge the complacency of his audience constitute nearly the entirety of his output. 1947’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” (Oct. 15) famously cast Gregory Peck as a muckraking journalist who goes undercover as a Jew in order to uncover anti-Semitism in an America that, ironically, had just defeated the Nazis. 1949’s “Pinky” (also Oct. 15) goes even farther, exploring racism in the deep south as experienced by a young mulatto who “passes” for white.

Likewise, the sexual content of Kazan’s work stretched the accepted boundaries (often taking heat for it), in films like “Baby Doll” and 1961’s “Splendor in the Grass” (Oct. 16-17). Written by playwright William Inge and starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, “Splendor” is perhaps the only film in history that makes the case that NOT having enough sex leads to madness.

Themes of communism, naming names and demagoguery also proliferate in Kazan’s body of work. One of the seldom seen gems in the series is 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd” (Oct. 21), which casts Andy Griffith as a ruthless cross between Elvis Presley and Joseph McCarthy who uses his charisma as a singing star to acquire political power through a brand of hate-mongering that will seem all too prescient to modern viewers.

Also lesser known is 1953’s “Man on a Tightrope” (Oct. 20), in which Frederic March plays a circus proprietor trying to escape from behind the Iron Curtain.  

If spicy content alone is not enough to draw you to the cinema, Film Forum’s retrospective offers several other hooks. Among the rarities on view will be seldom-seen 35mm prints of 1952’s “Viva Zapata” (Oct. 19) — which casts Marlon Brando as a repentant revolutionary; 1963’s “America, America” — Kazan’s personal tale of his family’s immigration (featuring a cast of unknowns); and the long unavailable “Wild River” (1960) — which will run for the entire week of Oct. 23-29. Considered by some scholars and critics to be Kazan’s finest film, it tells the story of a young worker for the Tennessee Valley Authority (Montgomery Clift) charged with the task of removing an old homesteader (Jo Van Fleet) from her property before it is flooded by a dam.  

Several of the screenings will feature live presentations by scholars and key participants in the films themselves. Benn Schulberg, son of Budd Schulberg (writer of “On the Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd”) will introduce the October 10, 7:40 p.m. show. The film’s script supervisor, Roberta Hodes, will present the 7:40 p.m. show on October 9. Stathis Giallelis and Linda Marsha, (cast members of “America, America”) will do a Q &A following the October 12, 8:00 p.m. screening of that film. “Pinky” (Oct. 15) will be introduced by Donald Bogle, author of “Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes and Bucks.” 

“Kazan’s track record has been equaled by few others,” says Goldstein. “He created one enduring classic after another. His films are still being studied in film schools and young audiences continue to discover them (and young actors continue to emulate many of the iconic performances).”  

Film Forum’s retrospective will give them a chance to do that with a thoroughness rarely possible. One suspects Kazan’s body of work will long outlive the controversy that plagued its creator.