The Heart of an Anarchist: Elia Kazan, the Artist as Outsider

"I don’t trust the state — whatever state. Do you? Really? I fear authority. I don’t believe that those who exercise it will continue to be friendly. I trust authority — to be unfriendly. I feel I will be apprehended as much for my thoughts as for past deeds and omissions."

~Elia Kazan: A Life (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1988)

Kazan on Kazan

No cultural history of twentieth-century America would be complete without a look at the life and work of Elia Kazan (1909—2003). The reputation of this great film-maker, theatre director and writer has divided opinion for over 50 years — for political reasons.

A new biography of Kazan has recently been given a mixed, but broadly favorable review in the New York Times (free log-in required). The book is by Richard Schickel, Time film critic and a friend of Kazan’s who in 1998 was apparently involved in the still controversial decision to bestow on him Hollywood’s lifetime achievement award for that year, and for whom writing it must have been a labor of love.

When it comes to biography, Elia Kazan himself is a hard act to follow. His 1988 magnum opus, entitled just A Life, is not only "arguably the best show-business memoir ever written," but also and quite simply a compulsive read. Despite its enormous length (825 pages in the 1997 paperback edition from Da Capo Press), it is a book which I and many others have found difficult to put down.

He was born Elia Kazanjioglou in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman empire (now Istanbul, Turkey), in September 1909. His father’s family were Greeks from the plain of Anatolia, a people later to be permanently exiled or assimilated, and many of them wiped out, as a result of the war of 1921—22 between Greece and Turkey.

Given the belligerence and vindictiveness exhibited by such states, ever prepared to sacrifice human lives for the sake of their own aggrandizement and perceived strategic interests or, worse still, "national dignity," is it any wonder Elia Kazan never trusted a state in his life?

Kazan was lucky: his family brought him to America when he was around four, before the fateful outbreak of World War One and all the human disasters that followed it in the land of his birth.

Many years later he was to go back there, in the attempt to rediscover his roots and understand the impulses which had lead his forbears to obey the human instinct to act upon the "desperate thrust for liberty" by emigrating to America. Out of this quest was to come a novel, America America, and the now unjustly neglected u2018classic immigrant experience’ movie of the same name.

"I could see what I had to do. I had to go back to Turkey — back to where my family had come from… really look and listen and stay put whenever I found something that aroused me. The more I thought about the early history of my family, the more complex it seemed and the less I found I actually knew about it. I was a kind of tourist in my family’s history. I had not experienced the events or the pressures I proposed to film or write about. I hadn’t been through the crisis of persecution and want, never knew the desperate thrust for liberty that I wished to dramatize. I was a middle-class American boy, a stranger to my own history." (A Life, p. 581)

Kazan’s own life and work can be seen as a thrust for liberty, carried out through a combination of devotion, awareness, application, groveling, cleverness, deception, artistry, technique, guile, toughness, compassion, betrayal and loyalty. He lived the fullest of lives, having been married three times, produced a large family of his own, and achieved both fame and notoriety in the worlds of theatre, film and, late in life, literature.

It’s all there in the autobiography, and if you want a truly engrossing read, and are interested in how the free human spirit survives in the struggle against all that assails it, I recommend this huge book without reservation.

Kazan and the House Unamerican Activities Committee

The autobiography also deals, of course, with the pivotal episode in Kazan’s life, the fateful day of his second testimony to the House Unamerican Activities Committee in April 1952, when (having earlier refused to do so) he finally gave it the names of ex-comrades in the American Communist Party, of which he had briefly been a member in the 1930s.

The fact that he testified brought him instant hostility, which endures to this day: there are those who can never forgive Kazan for what he did — ratting on former colleagues — and who feel that it contaminates his whole work: "One needs to cut through the self-serving arguments and excuses and say what is: Kazan behaved like a scoundrel, becoming an informer in 1952 to save his career in Hollywood and all that went with it." (David Walsh, Filmmaker and Informer). In this camp we find, incidentally, the writer of a truly disgraceful Fox News obituary notice which panders shamelessly to the most mawkish type of sentimentality about those whom the writer has selected as the approved victims of Kazan’s naming of names.

On the other side are those who believe he did the right thing, and for principled reasons. "That he came to understand the evils of the Communist Party and its ideology, and confirmed the names of its American members, who were “loyal” to falsehoods and murderers, makes him not a traitorous “informer,” but an individual dedicated to facts, truth. Elia Kazan should be applauded for such moral heroism." (Joseph Kellard, The Blacklisting of Elia Kazan)

In the middle are those who do not admire what he did, but nonetheless acknowledge the quality of his work, feel that he deserved his lifetime achievement award and are prepared to forgive, if not excuse. Among the most admirable of these — however much he may be criticized for not understanding economics — is the playwright Arthur Miller, whose own refusal to name names in the HUAC’s declining days is often contrasted favorably with Kazan’s u2018ratting.’

Miller and Kazan were personal friends; Kazan directed the first performance of Death of A Salesman in 1949; and the HUAC episode damaged the friendship almost beyond repair. But finally Miller, before he died earlier this year, in an article written in 2000 discussing the origins and motivations for his play The Crucible, showed great sympathy and understanding for Kazan, and it is worth quoting him at length. Here he describes the predicament:

Kazan had been a member of the Communist party only a matter of months, and even that link had ended years before. And the party had never been illegal, nor was membership in it. Yet this great director, left undefended by 20th Century Fox executives, his long-time employers, was told that if he refused to name people whom he had known in the party — actors, directors and writers — he would never be allowed to direct another picture in Hollywood, meaning the end of his career.

…Exactly as in Salem — or Russia under the Czar and the Chairman, and Inquisition Spain, Revolutionary France or any other place of revolution or counter-revolution — conspiracy was the name for all opposition. And the reformation of the accused could only be believed when he gave up the names of his co-conspirators. Only this ritual of humiliation, the breaking of pride and independence, could win the accused readmission into the community. The process inevitably did produce in the accused a new set of political, social and even moral convictions more acceptable to the state whose fist had been shoved into his face, with his utter ruin promised should he resist.

As he laid out his dilemma and his decision to comply with the HUAC (which he had already done) it was impossible not to feel his anguish, old friends that we were. But the crunch came when I felt fear, that great teacher, that cruel revealer. For it swept over me that, had I been one of his comrades, he would have spent my name as part of the guarantee of his reform. Even so, oddly enough, I was not filling up with hatred or contempt for him; his suffering was too palpable. The whole hateful procedure had brought him to this, and I believe made the writing of The Crucible all but inevitable. Even if one could grant Kazan sincerity in his new-found anti-communism, the concept of an America where such self-discoveries were pressed out of people was outrageous, and a contradiction of any concept of personal liberty.

Miller also mentions what a great shock it was for many people to learn that someone of Kazan’s stature, and whom so many admired, had done such an ignoble thing:

Kazan’s testimony created a far greater shock than anyone else’s. …. It may be that Kazan had been loved more than any other, that he had attracted far greater affection from writers and actors with whom he had worked, and so what was overtly a political act was sensed as a betrayal of love.

That more than anything is perhaps the reason why some continue to vilify him.

The benefit of hindsight makes it pretty clear that it is wrong to attribute to Kazan, as one carrying the alleged political weight of celebrity both then and now, a personal responsibility for ruining careers which in reality fell victim to blacklists, witch-hunts and loyalty tests sanctioned by government, establishment and studio bosses. Such tests, which invariably catch and condemn innocents and u2018fellow-travelers’ in their executors’ zeal to eliminate every possible subversive, have never been good for the cause of liberty and freedom of thought. Here’s Miller again:

It is very significant that in the uproar set off by [the 1999] award to Kazan of an Oscar for life achievement, one heard no mention of the name of any member of the HUAC. One doubted whether the thought occurred to many people that the studio heads had ignominiously collapsed before the HUAC’s insistence that they institute a blacklist of artists, something they had once insisted was dishonourable and a violation of democratic norms. Half a century had passed since his testimony, but Kazan bore very nearly the whole onus of the era, as though he had manufactured its horrors — when he was surely its victim.

The Miller-Kazan relationship was the subject of a PBS documentary broadcast in September 2003 (four days before Kazan died), entitled "Miller, Kazan and the Blacklist: None Without Sin," which attracted a lot of comment at the time.

The Heart of an Anarchist

The continuing Kazan/HUAC debate leaves practically no-one indifferent to the life and work of this undoubted man who, in some respects — his fears, his lust for life and the constant need for reassurance — retained throughout his 94 years all the alert and primitive instincts of child and animal.

Like any hunted animal, he tried never to let himself be pinned down: the creative impulse, born of many ambiguities, caused him always to look for the escape route from any enclosed space, almost as soon as he had walked in the door:

"When I was young, a shorthorn buck, my favorite quick line was "I’ve got to go." I’d arrive at a party, immediately feel ill at ease, then, with an "I’ve got to go," disappear. Often I’d not even give that nonexplanation, and I’d never hint at where I had to go or why so suddenly. I’d just vanish. Some years later, when I’d become a middle-aged goat, and if I saw there was no one in the traffic for me, I’d leave abruptly. I’m afraid I still do that. People ask me why I drop out that way and where I go so suddenly. "We missed you," they say. "We had a lot of fun after you left," they say. But that doesn’t prevent me, the next time I’m in tight company, from disappearing just as abruptly. It seems that when I’m in the society of my fellow man, I feel trapped, soon need to get away and do." (A Life, p. 335).

There was no reasonableness about him, and reasonableness is precisely the criterion which does not work when judging him. He was always aware of the terrible ambivalence which underlay his decision to testify: in an interview in 1971 he said of it, “I don’t think there’s anything in my life toward which I have more ambivalence, because, obviously, there’s something disgusting about giving other people’s names.” Yet seventeen years later, in "A Life," he writes: "Reader, I don’t seek your favor. I’ve been telling you only some of the things I was asking myself on the way "down." But if you expect an apology now because I [named] names to the House Committee, you’ve misjudged my character. The "horrible, immoral thing" I would do, I did out of my true self."

In my view, the key to understanding Kazan the artist is to know that he had a need for permanent uncertainty and unpredictability, what he called "an anarchist’s heart." Describing the period immediately following the production of five successful films, culminating in the 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd, Kazan wrote:

"I became convinced that an artist needs an anarchist’s heart and has to be pulled more than one way at a time. I had to be open to the unexpected….I set out to destroy what I found stifling and replace the predictable with the unpredictable. I courted what would be disruptive. I was more determined than ever to concentrate on my own projects and prepare my own scripts." (A Life, p. 571).

I believe Elia Kazan was one of twentieth-century America’s greats, a talented artist who worked magic with actors, introduced many future stars, and left an enduring movie legacy which is a visually fine and poetic body of work. Of course it is uneven in quality: it both benefits and suffers from the ambivalence and the inner personality conflicts which afflicted him. That in turn is what produces the fierce diversity of opinion, and very likely too the fact that people are still writing books and articles about him today.

Elia Kazan’s Movies — a Personal Anthology

"I ain’t a-crawlin’ for no damn government!" — Miss Ella in Wild River

The very early black and white film A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945), starring Dorothy McGuire, was Kazan’s first major film. It was based on the classic novel by Betty Smith and has a special place in many moviegoers’ affections, in part surely because of the iconic status of the novel. It is beyond being dated: it has all the melancholy nostalgic charm of a social era which has completely and utterly disappeared, so that it is now almost a documentary. Kazan himself described it as "mushy," a "photographed stage play set in a designer’s cleaned-up tenement." He was gratified at its success: "I was a success, it seemed, a great success," and yet, always the doubter looking over his shoulder for trouble, in the very next sentence he wrote: "Or was I a failure, a great failure? Or was it both?"

In 1951 Kazan directed Vivien Leigh and a smoldering Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, the screen version (also in black and white) of his earlier highly successful theatrical production of Tennessee Williams’ play. It was partially cut at the time of its release, at the instigation of the Legion of Decency which, in the name of "the preeminence of the moral order over artistic considerations" wanted the film to show that the married couple, Stella and Stanley, could never be happy together again after the way he had behaved. "Which," writes Kazan, "was contrary to Tennessee’s intention and his goal of u2018fidelity.’" Today we can see the full director’s version on DVD: over 50 years after it was made, it is still as dramatic a cinema experience as you are ever likely to get. Highly recommended.

On the Waterfront (1954), remains the best known and most publicly acknowledged of Kazan’s movies (it won eight Oscars), but artistically it is not his best. Made in the aftermath of his HUAC testimony, the film at the very least can be read as an unconcealed plea for the right of the main character Terry, played by Marlon Brando, to choose to rat on the vicious and corrupt leadership of his longshoremen’s union. In the film, "his decision to testify is portrayed as an act of courageous whistle-blowing, not betrayal or cowardice." (Jacob Weisberg, Blacklist and Backstory). Lindsay Anderson, the British critic and film director, once famously described it as "a Fascist film." Here’s Kazan himself speculating on the reasons for the film’s box office success:

"My guess is that it’s the theme, that of a man who has sinned and is redeemed. But how can that be? After all, Terry’s act of self-redemption breaks the great childhood taboo: Don’t snitch on your friends. Don’t call for the cop! Our hero is a "rat," or for intellectuals, an informer. But that didn’t seem to bother anyone in the audience, not given our villains, those whom Terry was fingering. Which is proof that Budd Schulberg [the screenwriter] touched a deep human craving there: redemption for the sinner, rescue from damnation. Redemption, isn’t that the promise of the Catholic church? That a man can turn his fate around and by an act of good heart be saved at last? There are gut reasons like that for the success of the great hits. They touch a fundamental hunger in people. Yes, that a man can, no matter what he’s done, be redeemed…" (A Life, p. 528)

The success of On the Waterfront was followed in 1955 by the classic Cain and Abel story, East of Eden, based on the latter part of John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name and introducing the actor James Dean in the first of the three big films he made during his short life. Dean overacts in the film, and by Kazan’s account behaved like a prima donna on the set, but the result, a cinematic portrayal of the story of Cal’s enterprising but ill-fated attempts to gain his father’s affections, is unforgettable and still very moving.

Kazan regretted the creation of the Dean legend, the essence of which was "that all parents were insensitive idiots, who didn’t understand or appreciate their kids and weren’t able to help them." Yet the old dualism was again in play: it was Kazan himself who had cast Raymond Massey, "the old-timer who’d played Lincoln enough times to establish a franchise" as the hardened father character, and had encouraged right to the end the spontaneous animosity which erupted between Massey and Dean:

"I didn’t conceal from Jimmy and Ray what they thought of each other: the screen was alive with precisely what I wanted; they detested each other. Casting should tell the story of a film without words; this casting did. It was a problem that went on to the end, and I made use of it to the end." (A Life, p. 535-6)"

Wild River (1960), a film beautifully photographed in fully saturated colors, starring Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick, is set in the 1930s in the Tennessee Valley. It describes the lead-up to the successful attempt by the then recently established Tennessee Valley Authority to buy up the last piece of privately-owned land it needs in order to close the great dam which will tame the wild river once and for all, thereby preventing the disastrous flooding which has taken place in earlier years at great cost in human life and damage to property.

The land in question is an island owned by an old lady, Miss Ella Garth, who is holding out with her family and faithful (but soon to be enticed away) farm laborers against what she sees as the dastardly intrusion of the federal government. Clift, as the TVA agent, makes repeated and initially unsuccessful attempts to talk to her on her island, with a view to discussing its compulsory purchase. On his first visit, when he announces "I’m from the TVA," she simply gets up and walks away. Next time around, frustrated, he says to her "You’ve got to talk to me." She snaps back at him, "Why should I talk to you? You’re from the federal government, aren’t you?" Later on, in a declaration of stubborn independence at his insistence that the river needs to be tamed for the common good, she says to him, "I like things running wild. I’m agin’ dams of any kind…and I ain’t a-crawlin’ for no damn government!"

Montgomery Clift as Chuck, and particularly Lee Remick as the stronger female character Carol, play the love scenes in an understated way which today would be regarded as u2018tame,’ yet her passion for him is conveyed with a surprising intensity.

Kazan wrote:

"I’d conceived this film years before as a homage to the spirit of FDR; my hero was to be a resolute New Dealer engaged in the difficult task of convincing "reactionary" country people that it was necessary, in the name of the public good, for them to move off their land and allow themselves to be relocated. Now I found my sympathies were with the obdurate old lady who lived on the island that was to be inundated and who refused to be patriotic, or whatever it took to allow herself to be moved. I was all for her. Something more than the shreds of my liberal ideology was at work now, something truer perhaps, and certainly stronger. While my man from Washington has the u2018social’ right on his side, the picture I made was in sympathy with the old woman obstructing progress.

Perhaps I was beginning to feel humanly, not think ideologically. The people in my life for whom I’d felt the deepest devotions were three old-fashioned women: my grandmother, my mother and my schoolteacher … I no longer had a taste for liberal intellectuals. I always knew what they were going to say about any subject. I simply didn’t like the reformers I’d been with since 1933, whether they were Communists or progressives or whoever else was out to change the world. I’d only believed I should like them. I’d followed the crowd, which during those years was going that way.

The film that resulted from all this is one of my favorites, possibly because of its social ambivalence. Jean Renoir’s famous phrase, "Everyone has his reasons" was true here. Both sides were "right." Wild River is also a favorite of certain French film critics [….] Skouras (the studio director) had an opposite view and treated the film deplorably, jerking it out of theatres before it had any chance to take hold and booking it thinly across the country. It was not exhibited in Europe until I staged a stormy scene in [the studio director’s] office and shamed him. I hope the negative is safe in one of Fox’s vaults, although I’ve heard a rumor that it was destroyed to make space for more successful films. This would not surprise me. Money makes the rules of the market, and by this rule, the film was a disaster." (A Life, p. 596f.)

One of my personal favorites is Splendor in the Grass (1961), the bittersweet and visually beautiful 1961 movie which introduced the young Warren Beatty and also starred the divine Natalie Wood. It was the first film by Elia Kazan I ever saw. Pat Hingle plays the Beatty character’s father larger (and above all louder) than life: this makes his suicide in the wake of the Wall Street crash all the more shocking. The whole film taught me that seemingly remote historical events, as well as fundamental life choices, could have tragic personal consequences.

Here is what Kazan himself had to say about Splendor in the Grass:

"[The] story is about a simple struggle of right, wrong, and social disgrace, of what is practical in life and what is best for property and family. It is not my favorite of films, but the last reel is my favorite last reel, at once the saddest and the happiest. Natalie, just released from an institution and declared sound again, visits her old love — Warren — in the hope that their relationship might be revived. She discovers that he is married, leading a life that’s far reduced from the station his father had envisioned for him, with a rather plain wife who is beginning to raise a family.

What I like about this ending is its bittersweet ambivalence, full of what Bill [Inge, the screenwriter] had learned from his own life: that you have to accept limited happiness, because all happiness is limited, and that to expect perfection is the most neurotic thing of all; you must live with the sadness as well as the joy." (A Life, p. 605)

America America (1963), shot in black and white and having an unknown Greek actor in the lead role, is a film in a category of its own. The film was nominated for several Oscars, including best director. Kazan wrote in 1988 that "it is now my favorite of the films I’ve made, but early in 1963, when I was editing it… I had doubts about its worth." This great immigrant movie, the location shooting of which was monitored every day by a Turkish censor (to ensure that u2018national dignity’ was upheld) and at times, disruptingly, by the secret police, did indeed represent Kazan’s finest achievement as his own master:

"…during my experience of making America America, particularly in those months when I was overseas directing it and making all decisions every day, I’d felt totally myself in a way I never had before. In the making of that film, all activity had started from a directive I gave, and each day’s program was based on my wishes. That was what I wanted to be, the unchallenged source. I recognized that from now on I’d only be able to work that way." (A Life, p. 660)

It is perhaps significant that Kazan’s major success after making this film was a written work: The Arrangement, which was made into a movie in 1969. In 1972 he self-financed another controversial film, The Visitors, with a screenplay written by his son Chris Kazan on a Vietnam war theme. It has achieved a certain cult status as well as notoriety, Kazan once again being attacked for not following the rules in making it and for choosing a subject-matter — a GI informing on atrocities carried out by his colleagues — which recalled the controversies of 1952. But by this time the major movie successes were behind him.

There is also a bittersweet irony in the fact that in 2001 America America was deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Too bad that Warner Brothers have not yet seen fit to issue it on DVD in the US or the UK: at the time of writing it appears only to be available in these markets as a prohibitively expensive second-hand VHS tape.

Kazan’s last film, made in 1976, was The Last Tycoon (available on DVD), which starred Robert de Niro in a movie version of the Scott Fitzgerald novel, scripted by Harold Pinter. Critics judge it a disappointment. Once again he introduced a new acting talent (Theresa Russell), and it is still a movie worth seeing, but there were enduring disagreements about the quality of the script and the suitability of Robert de Niro and Ingrid Boulting in the lead roles.

Overshadowing all the bad press, however, was the film’s personal significance. Kazan was aware that he was making his last film:

[The screenwriters] had provided me with nothing to shoot for an ending. This is the worst possible situation, because it means that something is wrong earlier in the story. I had to make something up.. and I did. I also had a hunch that it would be the last shot I’d make in my life, and perhaps for that reason the ending I devised said more about me and my feelings than it did about the film’s hero.

I asked Bobby [Robert de Niro] to walk slowly down a deserted studio street. He came to a stop at the side of a sound stage whose great rolling door was wide open… He hesitated for a moment, then he walked slowly off into the dark of the unused stage. The gloom enveloped him and he disappeared. It was the end, the fade-out of the film I was making and the end for me and my time as a director. … It was all over, and I knew it. (A Life, p. 781).

Elia Kazan was an outsider to the last.