Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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KAZAN


No, not Kazan the dog. This guy:

Today marks the birthdate of Elia Kazan, probably the most influential American director of the twentieth century. Canny, charismatic and

controversial, the diverse list of plays and films he worked on run the gamut. He worked side by side with so many great writers that his influence on their work cannot be underestimated. Here's a sampling of just some of the authors with whom he collaborated in theatre and film (alphabetically, so as not to rate anyone's importance):

Robert Anderson (Tea and Sympathy)

James Baldwin (Blues for Mister Charlie)

S.N. Behrman (One Touch of Venus, Jacobowsky and the Colonel, But for Whom Charlie)

Moss Hart (Gentleman's Agreement)

William Inge (The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Splendor in the Grass)

Alan Jay Lerner (Love Life)

Archibald MacLeish (J.B.)

Arthur Miller (All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, After the Fall, Incident at Vichy)

Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd)

John Steinbeck (Viva Zapata!)

Kurt Weill (Love Life)

Thornton Wilder (The Skin of Our Teeth)

Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, Baby Doll)

I mean, come on! There is no director who even comes close to approaching such a prolific and wide-ranging set of stories.

Kazan was born in Turkey, the son of Greek immigrants. His father came to America, later sending for Kazan's mother and little brother when Kazan was just four years old. Small for his age, he was withdrawn as a child, but also very bright, graduating cum laude from Williams College, then going on to study Drama at Yale University for two years. He had success in the theatre as both an actor, and on a smaller scale as a director. When he created the title role in Clifford Odets's pro-labor drama Waiting for Lefty, Hollywood took notice and Kazan couldn't resist the lure of what the movies could do for him. Only the film roles the studios cast him in, ethnic tough guys for the most part, didn't fulfill his ambitions, which were mighty. Back in New York, he threw himself in with the Group Theatre of the early 1940s and in the spirit of its name, did whatever he could to help contribute, be it as actor or director.

When in 1942, Kazan staged Thornton Wilder's dense and complicated The Skin of our Teeth, he turned it into a visually arresting production, highly praised for the caliber of the performances he elicited from Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March, Florence Eldridge and the twenty-two-year-old Montgomery Clift. After that, Kazan was on a tear, and practically all of the eight shows he staged show over the next seven years were hits up to, and including, 1949's Death of a Salesman. Hollywood came calling a second time, and somehow he managed to direct five films in those seven years, even winning the Academy Award for Gentleman's Agreement as Best Director. No one before him (or since) conquered both mediums with such velocity and intensity of production.

Unfortunately, by 2003, when Kazan died at the ripe of old age of ninety-four, most of his obituaries led with the story of his naming names in 1952 to the House Un-American Activities Committee in order to save his Hollywood career. A declarative sentence like that may seem unjust, but although Kazan had a hatred for Communists (he had joined the party in 1934, only to renounce his membership and left two years later), his later actions had severe consequences for actors, writers and directors in the film business who were being prevented from working purely by innuendo and without benefit of a trial to clear their names. By participating with the committee and handing over the names of people he thought or knew to be Communists, Kazan was directly responsible for aiding in the halting of those artists' abilities to feed their families, some of whom were his friends. Kazan could have continued working on the east coast in the theatre, barely suffering any interruption of earning a living at what he did best. He wanted to work in film and this was his only way of guaranteeing that. So for reasons he attempted to explain for the rest of his life, Kazan chose to aid the overzealous committee, which allowed him to direct films throughout the 1950s and 60s, all while the blacklist held its grip on the film industry. He even won a second Academy Award for On the Waterfront, a thinly-veiled attempt by he and screenwriter Budd Schulberg to positively portray someone who rats on his pals.

I know this is a harsh assessment. For me at least, it's the way I have always interpreted this oft-told story. Much like another tough and ambitious director who found himself in a closely identical situation, the stage director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, both made the same choice. Not known for being particularly nice guys and ruthless in their ambition, those traits came to the fore when each was confronted with the loss of the work that defined them. Both were genuine artists and deeply talented individuals, who were individualistic in what they brought to most everything they helped to create. Do we censor artists for their personalities? Do we boycott their work because we don't like them as human beings? It's a personal choice and people do what they feel they must. I'm sure at the height of the blacklist, a period I didn't live through, all of these decisions were brutal for everyone.

By writing this, I began with every intention to celebrate Kazan. Then, in going over his career, I couldn't help do what most everyone else has done over the years: boil it down to one choice he made that, if he didn't live to regret, many others did. When his lifelong friend and contemporary Karl Malden, then in his late 80s and a former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, pushed Kazan's name through a select committee to award him a lifetime achievement Oscar (in spite of the two he had collected for specific work), the controversy that followed blew up in everyone's faces. The night of the awards, having the specter of whether or not Kazan would be booed or cheered when he walked out on stage, had a good deal of drama to it. This was 1999, and here was Kazan being tried in the press all over again at the age of ninety for his actions nearly fifty years ago. The whole thing was very sad.

The plays Kazan directed for the stage are ephemeral, as such work always will be. I would have loved to see his A Streetcar Named Desire, or any of the twenty-five Broadway productions he directed in his lifetime. The film work will always be there, and with so many riches to choose from, I urge anyone who wants to see perfection in acting to watch the last scene from the first film Kazan ever directed, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Yes, he grew to become a much more confident director with a camera, but in terms of what he knew about actors, it doesn't get much better than Dorothy McGuire and Lloyd Nolan alone on screen talking. Check it out. It's available at Amazon.com.

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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