(Swans - August 15, 2011) When I was growing up in New York in the 1950s, in the liberal-leftist microcosm that was my world, we all had one unmitigated villain: Elia Kazan. It didn't matter that he was the miraculous midwife who had brought Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman and Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire to fruition, he remained a "squealer," a "rat," and a "Judas" who had turned in his communist comrades and therefore deserved to be hung, drawn and quartered.
The animus against Kazan began shortly after he became a cooperative witness before the House Un-American Activities Commitee and never abated up to his death in September 2003. Shortly after learning of his testimony, Arthur Miller came out with a play (The Crucible) about an accused man who refused to "name names." Originally earmarked for Kazan, Miller broke with the man who had virtually established his career and the play was directed by Jed Harris. Some years later, there was a reconciliation of sorts and Kazan did direct After The Fall at New York's Lincoln Center, but by then the gleam of notoriety had somewhat faded on both men.
After condemnation from the Left, Kazan's career went on, if not imperturbably at least steadfastly. There were films such as, East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd, The Last Tycoon, and a number of novels of which The Arrangement was probably the most successful. But despite the success of this considerable oeuvre, "the old comrades" remained bitterly unforgiving and for them, everything Kazan touched was morally tainted.
His massive autobiography could not redeem him because it did not contain enough "mea culpas" to satisfy the liberal left. The fact is that Kazan's disaffiliation with American-styled Soviet Communism was actually a genuine disenchantment with a treacherous mean-spirited and obnoxious political philosophy to which many impressionable liberals had been drawn to in the 1930s and '40s. But, of course, it wasn't the ideology that was at issue. The more salient point was that the people who were "named" were economically ruined, and so, the ostensibly honorable ritual of repudiating communist doctrine carried with it the stigma of destroying the lives of former friends and comrades.
A couple of years ago, the four major talent guilds produced a commemorative evening for survivors of the blacklist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was a heart-warming evening and just about four decades overdue. Obviously the homage paid to the victims of the hearings that blighted so many lives did not, and could not, extend to those who like Kazan had been partially responsible for the creation of the blacklist. I, like so many of my morally indignant friends, smoldered with resentment against Kazan through the 1960s and '70s but I must confess that gradually, by means of a painful and torturous circumlocution, I reached a new plateau of understanding about both the man and his times. I feel now that what is significant about Kazan, and what posterity will honor him for, is his creative genius, and that is right and proper. To amend Mark Anthony's line "The good that men do live after them. It is the evil that is oft interred in their bones."
Kazan wasn't simply a "brilliant" director, he was an artist who left his stamp on a generation of other artists and the man who raised social and psychological realism to a plane where it had never been before. He was a sorcerer, in that he conjured magical performances out of performers such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Rod Steiger, Julie Harris, et al., which these artists rarely achieved again. He did it by refusing to play the role of the old-styled director in jodhpurs and boots, bellowing abuse at trembling actors, but by quietly whispering hints and provocations into their ears that radically transformed their sense of characterization and often electrified the material on which they were working. No ploy was too low or conniving not to be employed to win the "gold" of a spectacular performance, no tactic too shoddy or too cruel if it jolted the imagination, thereby astonishing both the audience and the artist.
In retrospect, it could be argued that his influence on playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and William Inge is even greater than that stamped upon his actors. Williams acknowledged his debt to Kazan openly and, before the split, Miller did so privately. Kazan was the shaman and silent manipulator who simultaneously winnowed out and sharpened the work of America's finest playwrights turning torturous re-writes into startling mise en scène. We are all in a sense living in the Age of Kazan, and our idolatry of artists such as Brando and Dean, Malden and Steiger, Miller and Williams is in no small measure due to the directorial intelligence that colored the public images of those highly-esteemed actors and playwrights.
In justifying his decision "to testify" rather than "take the fifth," Kazan, exploring the moral circuitry that separates the "informer" from the "silent accomplice," fashioned a cinematic masterpiece in On The Waterfront, scripted by that other "friendly witness" Budd Schulberg. That film was torn from the guts of a man in a state of agonizing ambivalence. Can one really argue, forty years after the fact, that the moral dilemmas painfully exorcized in that work was not worth the effort? Regarding his testimony, Kazan never expressed any public remorse, and it may simply be my introjection that tends to believe that he felt it in private. But should our appreciation of an artist's achievement mainly be determined by the flaws in his character? By that measure, we would have to derogate Brecht, Ibsen, Strindberg, Celine, Von Karjan, and dozens of others.
Every year, doting prize-givers commemorate those artists who have enriched their profession. Even poor abused Chaplin, spurned by his adopted country and branded as everything from a lecher to a Red, was rehabilitated before his peers, sobbing in his wheelchair as he received his Special Oscar, which was due him at least thirty years before. It is bad enough that prophets are never honored in their own country but is a truly dismal spectacle to see mediocrities regularly lauded in one hyped-up award ceremony after another while supreme artists languish in neglect.
Surely, it is time to honor Elia Kazan's unsurpassed mastery -- not his moral character or his self-justifying sense of ethics, but the potent imagination in which he fertilized some of America's most treasured playwrights and inspired many of its greatest performers. If Russia can rehabilitate "non-persons" such as Meyerhold and Solzhenitsyn, surely America can acknowledge the troubled and besieged man who provided both theater and film with some of its most enduring achievements.
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