Dirty Realism

Peter Biskind is the author of "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood."

To a certain generation of a certain political stripe, Elia Kazan will always be the Whittaker Chambers of Hollywood--minus Alger Hiss of course, because the director never seemed to come up with the big score, never gave the House Committee on Un-American Activities the mole who fed Mosfilm, say, Darryl Zanuck's secret formula for box office success.

That said, it is hard not to warm to Kazan, or at least to the Kazan presented in the pages of Jeff Young's book-length interview, which is to say, the version of himself that he has chosen to present because the author or editor or compiler--whatever--is frank about the collaborative nature of the enterprise that Kazan apparently reviewed and approved. The voice that was so beguiling in the director's extraordinary, doorstop-sized 1988 autobiography is back again for an encore. He comes off like a character out of Damon Runyon. He is blunt and candid. His language is earthy. He is generous in his praise of others and cloaks his own contribution in a becoming garment of modesty, refusing, for example, credit for the legendary "I could'a been a contendah" scene in "On the Waterfront," which he attributes entirely to the genius of the actors, Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger.

Young approached this project with a naivete that is likewise appealing, hoping to extract from the master the secrets of the trade that would help him in his own infant directing career (the interviews were conducted in the early '70s), as if 50-odd years of experience could be reduced to a list of dos and don'ts. Still, the student was magnificently rewarded, probably well beyond his wildest expectations, because Kazan is a born teacher, articulate, even eloquent about the principles that animated his practice. It is not often that a director talking about the nuts and bolts of his craft rises to the level of wisdom about life.

Young's book was a news story even before it hit the stores. It had the good fortune to coincide with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' controversial canonization of the director with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Much of this ground will be familiar to Kazaniks from Michel Ciment's book-length interview published in 1974 and the subsequent autobiography. Still, the intelligence that shines through Kazan's recollections transcends both the nagging sense of deja vu and the how-to format, to make this a must-read, particularly for the general reader wondering what all the hullabaloo was about.

As Young reminds us, Kazan bestrode the American theater like a colossus for nearly 15 years, directing all the great plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, along with classics from Thornton Wilder, William Inge and Archibald MacLeish. He quotes Arthur Penn, who had his own extraordinary run after Kazan, saying, "For years, if any director even got to read a play, it meant that Kazan had already passed on it." Kazan's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" was a cataclysmic event that shook theater to its roots. He is justly celebrated for "discovering" Marlon Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty; for helping Brando give the two greatest screen performances of his career, in "Streetcar" and "Waterfront"; and for nurturing an array of exceptional if lesser talent like Julie Harris, Patricia Neal, Lee Remick, Rod Steiger and Karl Malden. Along with Lee Strasberg, he revolutionized screen acting by introducing the Method to Hollywood and by so doing helped nurture a younger generation of performers that included Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson. His commitment to emotional and physical naturalism led American cinema away from actorish performances in set-bound studio films and into the streets, paving the way for a new poetry of the real, an expressionism or "essentialism," as Kazan calls it, grounded in the concreteness of actual locations. As Young says, "His job, as he saw it, was not simply to entertain but to leave the audience with something when they went home, to change their lives."

A former actor himself, Kazan is very likely the greatest actor's director who ever lived. Here he is explaining his technique: "Before I start with anybody in any important role, I talk to them, for a long time . . . and before you know it, they're telling you about their wives, their mothers, their children, their infidelities and anything else they feel guilty about. . . . By the time you start with an actor, you know everything about him, where to go, what to reach for, what to summon up, what associations to make for him. . . . You try to put little darts into their own histories."

Kazan was notorious for the ingenious--not to say ruthless--measures he employed to manipulate actors. "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," shot in the waning months of World War II, featured a child actress, Peggy Ann Garner, whose dearly beloved father was in the Air Force. In one scene, Kazan played on her fears that her father might be killed to get a particular response out of her. In "Panic in the Streets," he cast an actress to play Zero Mostel's wife, an actress Mostel abominated, just to capture the sparks between them. When he was directing Jessica Tandy in "Streetcar" on Broadway, to break her of her Royal Academy training, he tied her up, threatened and mocked her. He loved to create off-camera dramas that mimicked and enhanced what he wanted to see in front of the camera.

Kazan dismisses his early films, including "Gentleman's Agreement," for which he won an Oscar, as stagey and sentimental, full of stock characters. On "The Sea of Grass" (1947), a famously awful production, he worked with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, which confirmed his lifelong distaste for stars. "You can't criticize stars freely," he complains. "They'll use their status as a weapon and protect themselves with it." Hepburn "had committed herself to a particular tradition of acting. . . . She was out of the old Theater Guild, she aspired to be like Katharine Cornell or Lynn Fontanne. Stars of that ilk had a duty to their audience to uphold a certain image of glamour, heroism and bravery. . . . That kind of acting leaves you with the feeling that there was nothing really personally at stake. . . . It's not in trouble, it's not committed, it's not in danger, it hasn't got a hard on, it's just a walking mask."

Kazan likes to point to "Panic in the Streets," a marvelous, if low-tech precursor to "The Andromeda Strain," as the film in which he developed a style that was more fluid and dynamic, down and dirty. For the first time, he told his story in images, rather than dialogue. And perhaps just as important, it freed him from the pieties of the Popular Front with which he was increasingly unhappy. "I was from the theater and I was 'deep'--loaded up with the first film that said 'nigger,' the first film that said 'Jew.' I finally rebelled. . . . Otherwise, I could have been a bore all my life. . . . That amount of righteousness is tedious. It hasn't got the breath of life in it."

It is easy to see what Kazan means. "Panic" is worlds away from the stiff and claustral social-problem films upon which he built his reputation. He always talks about it as the beginning of his John Ford phase because he learned to use long shots that made location a living element of the picture. But he also absorbed Ford's politics, or at least the politics of those around Ford, like John Wayne and Ward Bond. Released in 1950, well before Kazan became a friendly witness, "Panic" was an ominous indication of which way the wind was blowing for those who had the wit to see it. Consciously or not, the film was a sketch for "Waterfront." Although the plague that threatened New Orleans was a facile metaphor for McCarthyism, the plot constructs a situation in which the only right and sensible response to the epidemic is to inform, help the authorities track down the disease carriers. In the symbolism of the picture, the heavy, played by Jack Palance, is a "rat" not because he cooperates but because he refuses to.

Kazan is still fond of "Viva Zapata!," which he calls his first good picture, although to me it has always seemed one of his weaker efforts: The risible New Joisey accents of the Yiddish theater actors who populate the movie render ludicrous his attempts to authentically portray Mexican peasants. For the first time, Kazan slags John Steinbeck, the screenwriter of record, casually mentioning that the novelist was too preoccupied doing leather craft and thinking about his new novel, "East of Eden," to spend much time on the script. When he did suggest dialogue, Kazan found it "rigid" and did the rewrites himself.

The parlor game of looking for the figure of Kazan in the carpet is irresistible, and "Viva Zapata!" offers a rich tapestry through its tropes of betrayal and informing. Kazan reiterates his oft-stated remark that the story of the Mexican revolutionary interested him because Zapata "got power and walked away from it," which the director seized upon to make a not-so-veiled attack on Stalinism. The Stalinist in the movie is the cold and calculating Aguirre, played by Joseph Wiseman. In one scene, Aguirre convinces Zapata that his childhood friend Pablo is a traitor and must be killed. Zapata does the deed himself, presumably one of the broken eggs that leads him to relinquish power in self-disgust. (Of course, as soon as Zapata does so, he is promptly killed, a minor problem for which Kazan had no solution except for a fanciful white horse that is supposed to represent Zapata's spirit and the indomitable will of the people, blah, blah, blah.) Where is Kazan in all of this? He doubtlessly liked to think of himself as Zapata--played by Brando, his "Waterfront" doppelganger--the passionate man of the people who is too pure to exercise power, or perhaps Pablo, a victim of the scheming Aguirre, just as Kazan saw himself as the tool and victim of Stalinist cultural commissars. But ironically, it is Aguirre he resembles most, the ruthless puppet master pulling strings from behind the scenes, an inescapable metaphor for the director, whose own betrayal of his friends and colleagues mirrors Aguirre's ultimate betrayal of Zapata.

It is in the "Waterfront" chapter, the most thorough and best in the book, that Young confronts Kazan about his HUAC testimony. Although Young makes no secret of his admiration for the director, he doesn't hesitate to mention the unmentionable. (Young's uncle Ned was a blacklisted screenwriter who died without ever being able to claim screen credit, even though his script for "The Defiant Ones" won an Oscar.) Kazan says the same things he's said before in the Ciment interview and his autobiography--namely that he had become convinced that the Soviet Union was a monolithic evil empire that had started the Korean War and was operating a dangerous and subversive network of clandestine cells. He vigorously denies that he informed to protect his movie career and once again advances the notion that, because he named only people who were already known, it was no big deal. He does allow, as an afterthought, that "they, of course, suffered some from it."

Although it's true that he could have done much more damage than he did, the point worth emphasizing is that Kazan's big score, the Alger Hiss he delivered to HUAC, was himself. As Victor Navasky has pointed out, the "naming" ritual was not intended to expose new Reds and fellow travelers; it was a way of legitimizing HUAC and its enterprise. Kazan had enormous prestige in those days, based on his artistic achievements and his participation in the social struggles of the '30s. His was a life that combined art and politics, incomprehensible today after decades of Cold War rhetoric have driven a wedge between the two. Had he thrown his moral authority against HUAC, it would have constituted a stinging rebuke, encouraging others to do the same. As it was, he not only jumped the wrong way, he went the extra mile, groveling before Parnell Thomas and Richard Nixon, et al--no William Empson they--in his textual explications of pictures like "Viva Zapata!," intended to demonstrate that they were actually blows against communism. Such desperation suggests that concerns about his Hollywood career were never far from his mind. (Interestingly, he now says he "quit the Party," whereas he told Ciment that he was "furious" at the way "they booted me out of the Party," adding another fillip of motivation to the mix.)

If, indeed, Kazan acted on principle, as he claimed, his mea culpa would be easier to swallow if he had done as several others in his position did: offer to testify about his own role but refuse to name others involved in what was little more than a "conspiracy" of well-meaning liberals to raise the minimum wage and secure social justice for "Negroes." Instead, he gave aid and comfort to the most reactionary elements in America, those who successfully set back the progressive agenda for decades.

Young, apparently unsatisfied with Kazan's explanations, raised the issue again in one of their last meetings, putting his finger on the glaring contradiction in the director's position: If Kazan felt that the Party posed such a threat, why did he confine his testimony to a handful of people who had already been named? Why did he not name others of greater celebrity like, say, Arthur Miller, who indeed feared Kazan would cite him? The implication, of course, is that Kazan did not believe the Hollywood fellow travelers posed much of a threat and that his real motive was not so much patriotic as pecuniary in nature. As Orson Welles is famously supposed to have said, "Kazan traded his soul for a swimming pool." Instead of responding to Young's question, Kazan simply--and bizarrely--fell asleep.

It was a mistake to think Kazan would apologize, as many in Hollywood apparently did, using the occasion of his Oscar to reach out to the people he injured. As he puts it, "If you examine the life of any artist, you'll see that none of them are nice guys. They're not particularly kind or sweet. I'm tough. You don't survive any other way." But the regret is there, even if it has to be inferred, as in this remark about Mostel: "Zero was adorable. I just loved him. He was just a marvelous, dear, wonderful man." After Kazan testified, Mostel never spoke to him again.

What is Kazan's legacy? "As he saw it, his lifelong task was to turn psychology into behavior," writes Young. "And, as the 20th century is man's most overtly 'psychological' era, perhaps Kazan's psychological acumen is one of the reasons that his work is as alive today and insightful today as it has ever been." On the contrary, the truth is that we have lost interest in psychology. The Method is fast receding into the distant past, increasingly regarded as a quaint remnant of the '30s, while Freud's reputation has never been in such low repute. The kind of emotional authenticity that animates Kazan's films is not much prized in an era of special effects and video games. Kazan saw himself as the anti-Hitchcock, a director he dismisses as "a master of stunts and tricks." He says, "I hope the story that I am telling has so many overtones that it becomes symbolic of our time, of our issues, which is to say, mythic." But today many prefer Hitchcock's kind of filmmaker, and if they want myth, they turn to George Lucas. Kazan's cultural ambitions seem old-fashioned, politically correct, even slightly embarrassing. As Young's book helps to remind us, that is our loss.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World