By any measure, Elia Kazan, who died Sunday at the age of 94, lived a full and rewarding creative life. As a director he was a significant force -- arguably the significant force -- in 20th century American theater as well as in film. He wrote best-selling novels and one of the great modern autobiographies. He won Oscars and Tonys and lifetime achievement awards. So why do I feel this great sadness, as for something unresolved, at his death?
Part of the reason is personal. Kazan is someone I knew, someone I’d met and talked with several times, and that obviously makes a death different. But it’s more than that. What saddens me is the way I fear he will be remembered. It’s not for his sake, or even for mine, but for the sake of all of us that I’m troubled about what his reputation says about the place mindless vindictiveness, fear and simplistic blame can have in parts of our culture.
By any objective standard, Kazan’s reputation as a director is impeccable. He made socially conscious films such as “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “A Face in the Crowd,” “Wild River” and “Pinky” at times when (surprise) Hollywood was not eager to rock the boat, and his deeply personal 1963 “America, America” was a precursor of an independent film sensibility decades before Sundance’s heyday.
But it is as a director of actors that Kazan is best known, deservedly celebrated for his ability to use the strength of his personality and the tenets of the Stanislavsky-inspired Method to elicit a string of performances of such remarkable naturalism that they literally changed the face of American acting.
It’s not just that 21 of his actors and actresses were nominated for Oscars or that nine went on to win, it’s that when you see films such as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “On the Waterfront” and “East of Eden” today, you witness not only iconic performances by stars Marlon Brando and James Dean but also a level of ensemble acting that still takes your breath away half a century later.
This is exceptional work by any standard, but I know without having to read them that in most Kazan obituaries these achievements will jostle for space with his 1952 decision to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, to, in the parlance of the times, “name names.”
And I have to say that for a number of reasons I am troubled by that, troubled by what often has become a self-righteous rush to judgment about Kazan’s testimony by people of another generation and what that trend says about the kinds of mindless political correctness and partisan zeal his critics are nominally speaking out against.
A convenient symbol
The complexities of why Kazan testified, what he said and what the effects of his testimony were -- an imbroglio matched only by the Rosenberg executions as a Cold War hot button -- are matters for historians and biographers to sift through. But what those who lived through that period know better than anyone is that it was such a pervasive nightmare that it’s foolhardy and hubristic to confidently assert retroactive moral superiority.
As Madeleine Sherwood, a blacklisted actress, recalled to The Times’ Susan King, “People have said to me, ‘What would you have done if you had been called up?’ I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows what they would do if they were not in that position.”
We’d all like to think we’d recognize the right thing as well as do it -- both more difficult in the real world than in theory -- if a challenge arose, but no one who is honest can swear that they would.
Yet that hasn’t stopped zealots from not only decrying Kazan for testifying but also thoroughly demonizing him as if he was Sen. Joseph McCarthy himself, turning him, quite contrary to reality, into a scapegoat for the entire blacklist period.
Ezra Pound made more than 300 broadcasts of Fascist propaganda during World War II, but that has become no more than a footnote in discussions of his poetry. Leni Riefenstahl might have made a film that celebrated Nazism -- probably a more destructive force than HUAC -- but that didn’t step the Telluride Film Festival from honoring her even though it never did the same for Kazan.
Kazan in fact became such a convenient symbol that no one seems to notice the illogic of the condemnations. Though he spoke about the anti-Stalinist principles behind his actions, he was denounced for acting simply to protect his career.
But, in later years, after anti-communism had faded from favor and it would have been politic to recant, he was condemned again for refusing to offer fulsome and repeated apologies for his actions.
If expedience rather than principle had truly been his guiding light, wouldn’t he have done just that?
A cottage industry
What brought on this eagerness to condemn, the noxious spectacle of actors refusing to applaud Kazan when he was awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999? In part it’s a phenomenon Patty Hearst described to me in an interview years back when she talked about why there was so much public antipathy directed toward her and her actions. It frightens people, she said, to think that they might act the way I had if they were caught in a similar impossible situation. And in Hollywood, a business that just about invented insecurity, the glib shunning of others always is preferable to questioning and introspection.
Hollywood also is a place where groupthink is necessary for protective coloration: No one wants to be caught outside the party line, which is how the blacklist became such a force in the first place. Attacking Kazan had gotten to be such an unthinking cottage industry that when the blacklisted Abraham Polonsky, displaying the temperament that would have made him a fine Soviet commissar, said in 1999 that he’d be watching Kazan on the Oscars “hoping someone shoots him, it would no doubt be a thrill in an otherwise dull evening,” people shamefacedly swept the remark under the carpet rather than give it the outright censure it deserved.
The bottom line in all of this is that judging an artist for any reason other than his or her art is a terribly slippery slope. It can lead all too quickly to things like the blacklist itself, which condemned artists for their political beliefs, or even the banning or imprisonment of creative people in totalitarian states because of their religion or sexual orientation. Not to mention that attacking anyone for alleged moral lapses in the context of Hollywood, a place where the search for people without sin would require the ingenuity of Sam Spade, seems particularly hypocritical.
We hurt ourselves, not people like Elia Kazan, when we think we know more than we can and presume to pass extraneous ethical judgments; we ignore and devalue exceptional creative works by saying, “None of that matters, don’t you know how he treats his dog?” Yes, that’s a bit glib, but isn’t it fair to say that what we should be looking at in a creative person’s life, the only thing we can really know for sure, is what they created. By that standard, Kazan’s accomplishments are and will continue to be the very stuff of legend.