Elias Kazancioglu, 7 September 1909, Constantinople, Ottoman Empire (now Istanbul, Turkey)

28 September 2003, New York City, USA

 

“The director tells the movie story more than the man who writes the dialogue. The director is the final author.”1

–Elia Kazan

The career trajectory of Elia Kazan is such that any of its diverging (and often reconnecting) artistic paths would warrant attention in their own right. He was first an actor, then stage director, then filmmaker and novelist, often embarking on several of these endeavours simultaneously. What is more, Kazan was lauded for his contributions in all of these mediums, winning Tony and Academy awards and penning New York Times bestsellers. Nevertheless, given the widespread popularity and the relatively more substantial cultural impact of his work as a filmmaker, it is for that which he is generally known and most often appreciated.

Kazan first appeared in a twenty-two-minute short with no dialogue called Pie in the Sky (Ralph Steiner, 1935). Two years later, he was one of several directors behind the documentary People of the Cumberland, about strip miners in Tennessee. His last substantial screen appearance was in City for Conquest (Anatole Litvak, 1940). Taking into account his subsequent film work and his concurrent theatrical achievements – co-founding New York’s Actors Studio in 1947 and winning two Tony Awards for best director (Arthur Miller’s All My Sons in 1947 and Miller’s Death of a Salesman two years later) – Kazan’s career, specifically from March 1943 to 1954, constitutes what was, in Richard Schickel’s words, “without question the most remarkable era any American director ever experienced.”2.

It was Twentieth Century Fox producer Louis “Bud” Lighton who gave Kazan Betty Smith’s award-winning novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, initiating a five-film contract with the studio. In this story of Irish immigrants living in early twentieth-century Brooklyn, Kazan found numerous points of personal attachment. Born to Greek parents in what is now Istanbul, Turkey, Kazan and his family first moved to Berlin, then went back to Istanbul, then finally arrived in New York when he was four years old. Repeatedly drawn to notions associated with immigrant dreams of American potential, in Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis’s adaptation of Smith’s novel, Kazan found, “the first piece of material offered me that made me think about my own life and my own dilemma.”3

Elia Kazan

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

There was also the key Kazan theme of the “damaged male.”4 In this case it was budding singer Johnny Nolan (James Dunn), a self-destructive alcoholic who, in the search for success, takes on menial jobs to provide for his family: wife Katie (Dorothy McGuire) and children Neeley (Ted Donaldson) and Francie (Peggy Ann Garner). As the Nolan family sacrifices and endures, they greet the life still ahead with an endearing optimism. Confronted by the way things are and the way things could be, their ideals persevere and there remains a nobility in the face of great difficulty. In particular, thirteen-year-old Garner expresses an old-beyond-her-years sense of displaced responsibility and a street-smart savvy. At the same time, she is dreamy, and, like her father, prone to wishful thinking, putting on a happy face despite apparent obstacles. Her mother, however, has grown hard like “granite rock,” partly by necessity. Francie conveys a natural purity, displaying, like the film itself, a starry-eyed sentimentality.

While an opening title card of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) touts the setting as one of “vital, teeming streets,” and throughout the film there is the air of urban flurry, this was a purely back lot production, which was fine for Kazan as apprehensive first-time filmmaker. Later, however, it became a professional pet peeve. The film is orderly and uncluttered, and though essentially stage-bound, Kazan employs a considerable degree of camera movement to help offset the theatrical frontality. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is an undeniably emotional film, and an auspicious cinematic debut. If Kazan professed to using “every trick to try to make things sentimental, romantic and affectionate”5 to that end, he certainly succeeded.

Kazan’s often-voiced disappointment with studio shooting would be met by what he soon discovered was a distaste for fabrication in general, and inauthenticity in costume and performance as well as setting. His Fox contract allowed him to work at another studio, so for his sophomore effort, Kazan took a turn at perhaps the most illustrious one of them all: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Prior to production on Sea of Grass (1947), however, Kazan was greeted with a foreboding sign of things to come. This included an overabundance of rear projection stock footage (there would be no location shooting for what he hoped would be a wild Western) and two Hollywood luminaries, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, who, though kind, disciplined, and talented, were out of their element in this depiction of a hardy life on the range.

Certain scenes in the film – for example the bustling western town that greets Hepburn’s Lutie Cameron Brewton when she arrives to meet her husband, Col. James B. “Jim” Brewton (Tracy) – may allude to the potential for generic realism, but such visual validity was not consistent. Incongruities ranged from stoutly well-fed animals, clearly not of an accurately rustic disposition, to the finely tailored and impeccably unsoiled bucolic costumes. There are, though, familiar Western themes, like the unsteady implementation of law and order, the settlement of a civilizing society (with Lutie and Jim representing the contrasting east-west cultures), and, perhaps ironically given the film’s studio containment, an emphasis on land and the value assigned to property and individual enterprise.

Sea of Grass gets by on its excellent photography, from fourteen-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr., with whom Kazan would again work on A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and A Face in the Crowd (1957). It also features a decently dramatic rendering of the struggles inherent in the region, particularly the harsh realities of the climate. The expanse of time covered in the film suggests narrative scope, but the result is an orthodox production and an impersonal assignment for the now weary Kazan.

A career “cure” after Sea of Grass,6 Boomerang! (1947) was shot entirely in its Connecticut location, and Kazan was working off an essentially true story, using a host of non-actors in addition to stars like Dana Andrews, Jane Wyatt, and Lee J. Cobb (soon to be a familiar face in the Kazan stock company). Boomerang! tells the story of a priest randomly executed on the streets of a small Anytown, USA. From its opening journalistic voice-over narration to the proliferation of newspapers present in the picture, the film has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality that explores the precarious connections between law enforcement and counterproductive social bureaucracy. It also opens up one of Kazan’s most persistent conflicts, that of three perennially combative institutions: politics, the press, and the police.

Stumbling law enforcement figures and an inept oversight committee keep attorney Henry L. Harvey (Andrews) stuck in the middle of a clumsy criminal investigation. As he tries to do the right thing, he becomes, in an emerging Kazan tradition, a solitary advocate against systemic venality. His persistence gets the legal wheels in motion, and though the crime is left unsolved, the principled quandary exposes a peaceful community torn asunder, settling on a safely heroic message and a conventional courtroom drama (save for some loaded gun theatrics).

An individual taking it upon himself to uncover societal ills – in this case anti-Semitism – would also motivate Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Based on Laura Z. Hobson’s novel, this was a daring project in its day, one only Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck appeared willing to tackle (his Jewish studio head counterparts were less willing). As Gentleman’s Agreement admirably broached this touchy subject, the problem, certainly for Kazan, was how it did so. To be sure, it was first-class production across the board, with stars, style, and a social conscious. It had a bold statement to be made. But it was, according to Kazan, “too nice” and “too damn polite.”7

Assigned to the prejudicial topic, gentile-posing-as-Jew reporter Philip Schuyler Green (a predictably gallant Gregory Peck) accepts the task with trepidation. How does one explain and illustrate bigotry? In choosing to humanise the issue, through feelings rather than facts and figures, both he and the film question the inherent judgemental attitude so many possess, pointing out the variability of full-on bigotry and latent prejudicial assumptions. Unfortunately, as a cultural exposé and a call to arms against silently standing by in the face of discrimination, the virtue of the survey comes across as a little too pat. The reactions are hackneyed, with intolerance apparently so pervasive that conflict is produced from nearly every encounter Green has.

While Gentleman’s Agreement would garner Kazan his first Academy Award for directing (it also won Best Picture), he ultimately felt cold about the end product. “The whole idea of a gentile pretending to be a Jew is a cop-out to begin with,” he said. “You should really make a picture about a Jew and what he goes through.”8

Pinky (1949) was another message movie concerning the prejudices within and without a particular culture. And it was another sanitised presentation, one Schickel rightly calls “emotionally detached.”9 It was also a film Kazan only took on as a favour to Zanuck. After the picture’s original director, John Ford, left the film ten days into production (he said he had contracted shingles but was actually just looking for a way out of the project), Kazan stepped into the shoes of his cinematic hero, arriving in Los Angeles on a Saturday and commencing the shoot on Monday.

Returning to her southern home after time in the north, where her light complexion allowed her to “pass” as white, the African-American Pinky (played by white actress Jeanne Crain) is confronted by a conflict of cultural responsibility and professional duty, as well as issues of identity, race, and evolving ideals. While Pinky succeeds in condemning the discrimination and harassment faced by this young woman, the film is, in Schickel’s words, simply a “well-meaning soap opera about racial prejudice in a small southern town.”10

Kazan’s 1950 follow-up, a turning point in many ways, was Panic in the Streets – according to him, the only perfect film he ever made.11 The rather ahead of its time subject of spreading contagion is given a stark noirish aesthetic, with the pounding score of a thriller, high contrast lighting, and a jazzy background. “I’d made five pictures,” Kazan notes, “and none of them had anything in them that I couldn’t have done on stage.”12 With this film, in the hopes of finally exploiting the distinct language of cinema, Kazan set himself the goal of telling a story with images, placing less importance on dialogue and essentially treating the picture like a silent.

Somewhat uniquely in Kazan’s body of work, the viral concern of Panic in the Streets gives the film immediately tangible and potentially far-reaching repercussions, beyond the essential plot of the picture and the individual lives of the main characters. Again, in addition to the criminal element (the first unambiguous villain in a Kazan film), comes the stormy press-police-politics trifecta and one man’s solitary plight. As with many Kazan protagonists, that man – here Lieutenant Commander Clint Reed, M.D. (Richard Widmark) – is defined by his expertise and adherence to professional obligation, with an individual crusade kept composed by a love interest.

Working off a screenplay by Boomerang! scribe Richard Murphy, Kazan directed Panic in the Streets in the semi-documentary style popular at the time, utilising New Orleans locals and shooting every minute on location. The importance of location shooting for Kazan, especially from this point forward, cannot be understated. As Kent Jones points out, while Kazan’s work is often praised for its ground breaking acting (he did, after all, direct twenty-one different actors to Oscar-nominated performances), what remains neglected is his “meticulous sense of environment.”13 “The places look ‘right,’” states Jones, “but they also feel right – the atmosphere, the movement, and the behaviour within any given space converge to allow every background to tell its own alternating story, sometimes in concert and sometimes in counterpoint with the action… as surrounding life always does.”14

That said, for his 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which he had brought to the stage in a remarkable 1947 production, Kazan would stay in the studio, but for good reason. He had, for a time, considered opening up the film, following Blanche (Vivien Leigh) before she arrives in New Orleans, and shooting beyond the confines of Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stanley’s (Marlon Brando) cramped residence. However, in doing so he found he risked diluting the power of Williams’s source, which gained much of its potency from its progressively uncomfortable sense of proximity.

Sure enough, Kazan does craft a forcefully compressed portrait of primal passions that devastate a trio of restlessly volatile characters. A Streetcar Named Desire takes place in a claustrophobic milieu where hair-trigger violence and sultry sexuality meet in a suggestive concoction of emotion. Against the film’s atmospheric backdrop, with the noise and commotion of neighbouring life in constant earshot, there is an actorly intensity not yet seen in Kazan’s work. Spearheaded by Method-master Brando and his riotous performance, the film exudes a sweaty, unbridled carnality, raising the ire of the Motion Picture Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency in the process. Though the censorial interference led to several cuts without Kazan’s consent, A Streetcar Named Desire was, and is, a phenomenon – and Kazan’s first unquestioned masterpiece. It also secured him another Oscar nomination for direction.

While simultaneous screenplays that eventually formed the basis for On the Waterfront (1954) still floundered, Kazan pushed forward with Viva Zapata! (1952). Expanding the breadth of his narrative focus, Kazan presents a national hero with an international impact. Zapata (Brando) the appealing rebel is an idealist, acting for the sake of his community with a sympathy toward the oppressed masses. Yet his mythic status and populism is confronted by the burdens of potentially corrupting authority. Enamoured by the story of this celebrated Mexican revolutionary as early as 1935, Kazan and company create a film with large-scale battle sequences and dynamic political reverberations, depicting the land with rich cultural texture. It is Kazan’s “most overtly ideological movie,”15 and as close to a grand epic as he would ever make.

Elia Kazan

A Streetcar Named Desire

Then came a pivotal moment in the life and work of Elia Kazan. In the 1930s, Kazan had been a member of the Communist Party for about 18 months, but in the early 1950s his past caught up with him. The nuances of Kazan’s 1952 testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee are laid out superbly by Schickel in his biography of the director, but the essential facts are these: Kazan “named eight Group Theatre members who were also Communists, one of whom was dead, and two of whom had long since left the party. He also named two open members of the party; a non-Group actor, also deceased, a stagestruck Group hanger-on, and four individuals who had been non-creative members of another organization, the League of Workers Theatre, where Kazan had taught and directed.”16 The shock of Kazan’s naming of names may have quickly subsided, but when he defended his actions in a New York Times advertisement, the situation was exacerbated. The ensuring debate, which lasted to his death, is in large part why Kazan had what Jones calls “one of the thorniest careers in American cinema.”17

Keen to get out of the country for a while, Kazan next told the true story of the German Circus Brumbach, which had escaped East Germany during times of political upheaval. Changing the setting to Czechoslovakia with an escape from persecution into Austria, Man on a Tightrope (1953) would be an anti-communist work to show that Kazan was not afraid to come out against the belief system, in defiance of those who questioned his sympathies. With politics still fresh on his mind (blacklisted actors working on the picture included Fredric March in the lead role), Kazan found the circus was a “good image for democracy.”18 As depicted here, it is an insular community, a self-sustaining world confronted by external national realities. Theirs is a multicultural, multinational, multi-religious conglomeration, where only the circus matters. Unfortunately, the intrusion of politics infects the purity of their camp, breeding hostility and suspicion, leading to betrayal.

The clear yet comparatively unassuming political connotations of Man on a Tightrope (unassuming mainly because the film was not widely seen) dramatically rose to the surface with On the Waterfront. Though insisting the project was never meant to be an overtly revelatory testament, Kazan, who took home his second Best Director Oscar for the film, acknowledged parallels with his own life in the story of a dock worker prodded to inform on his gangster friends, including his own brother. As played by Brando in arguably his finest performance, Terry Malloy, suffering under anguish and guilt, seeks redemption for his role in a murder. Placed in the uncomfortable position of dual obligation and intimidation, Terry finds the courage to take on the pervasive corruption, even if it means going it alone. The political correlations were not lost on anyone.

The violent callousness of the gangsters ensures sympathy for Terry, who reveals a tenderness in spite of his bitter do-it-to-him-before-he-does-it-to-you cynicism. While he is ultimately the final figure rising above the criminal exploitation, others, like Father Barry (Karl Malden) and a crew of fellow longshoreman, risk their lives as well. And through it all, one cannot minimise the importance of Terry’s romance with the sweetly meek Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), who sees through his tough veneer and urges the man he truly is.

Elia Kazan

On the Waterfront

With On the Waterfront, Kazan and cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who also won an Oscar for his work on the film, achieve an almost neorealist aesthetic, where the grey moral ambiguities of the picture are in contrast to the black and white ethical severity of Panic in the Street. Striving for a raw authenticity, the film benefits immeasurably from the detailed presentation of a very specific way of life and the ingrained naturalism of the setting (the bitterly cold winter is etched on the faces of the actors, just as the desert heat infused those in Viva Zapata!). Kaufman would go on to also man the camera on Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956) and Splendor in the Grass (1961).

Kazan contends his best films were made after the tumultuous experience with the blacklist and his disputed testimony – and On the Waterfront is surely one of them. There is indeed an evolving maturity in his work, especially an increasingly complex view of humanity. While a number of his films made prior to this point are worthy of classic designation (particularly Streetcar), Kazan argued, “The ones before were professionally adept… The films after April 1, 1952, were personal, they came out of me…. They’re films I still respect.”19

Pushing forward from the controversy, Kazan looked to John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, or at least its latter portions. Paul Osborn’s adaptation, which only covered a small part of Steinbeck’s text, was an easy sell to Jack Warner, and the production itself was relatively simple, as Kazan was also now producing the picture himself. Kazan identified with young Cal Trask (James Dean), a loner challenged by familial and societal expectations. His rebellious uncertainty is intensified by envy toward his brother (Richard Davalos), a sexual interest in his brother’s girlfriend (Julie Harris), and the parental contrast of his estranged mother (Jo Van Fleet), a scandalous madam of ill repute, and his holier than thou father (Raymond Massey). These are sensitive figures who want to do good and be good, but are habitually plagued by communicative failures.

Osborn brought newcomer Dean to Kazan’s attention, though the director was not immediately sold and actually felt the young man’s performance rather lacking. But to audiences worldwide, Dean was a commanding screen presence, with a brooding physicality and moody disposition that tapped into the adolescent angst and cultural zeitgeist of the era.

East of Eden, which earned Kazan another Academy Award nomination, was his first film in colour and in Cinemascope. While Lisa Dombrowski contends, somewhat accurately, that Kazan’s visual style is “less consistently vibrant,” that “his films can appear more a series of individual experiments than a unified body of work marked by recurring stylistic traits,”20 there is much about this film that appears explicitly designed for the wide screen. Here, as he did most notably with On the Waterfront, Kazan proved himself a master of compositional suggestion, with tilted camera angles to promote unease, and framing down narrow hallways to manipulate the expanse of the horizontal format, creating visually jarring, and thematically confining, frames within frames.

Elia Kazan

East of Eden

Produced independently by Kazan’s Newtown Productions, based on a story supplied by Tennessee Williams, Baby Doll features Karl Malden as Archie Lee Meighan, Carroll Baker as his titular teen bride – who on the basis of their unique agreement has not yet consummated their raucous marriage – and, entering into the domestic fray, Eli Wallach (in his feature film debut) as bellicose cotton gin entrepreneur Silva Vacarro. The three main actors are joined, as the credits state, by “some people of Benoit, Mississippi.” Kazan was now in the process of locating most of his films in predominantly rural settings, generally in the southern United States. In Baby Doll, the result is a Greek chorus of delightful side characters, African-American men and women milling about, giving the crew a warm welcome in real life and invaluably contributing to the ambience of the film. It is a genuine yet somehow foreign location, one of those palpable Kazan environments the viewer feels privileged to enter.

Elia Kazan

Baby Doll

With Baby Doll, Kazan was determined to “make a picture with no sympathy and no heroes,”21 and true enough, this is one ambiguous threesome. As Silva easily twists both Baby Doll and Archie Lee with his intimidating smooth talk, their relationships hinge on violent (though seldom serious) potential and teasing provocation, veering into comedic absurdity. Extended close-ups of Silva as he caresses Baby Doll’s face and neck, leaving her in an aroused tizzy, are followed by playful pursuits, the mania both sultry and tense, the high anxiety hilarious and perverse.

The eccentric nature of Baby Doll leads some, like Brian Neve, to comment on its unusual condition. According to Neve, the film’s “lack of clear resolution and its moral ambivalence, together with its strange landscape and game playing… suggest something closer to avant-garde theater.”22 If Baby Doll is also Kazan’s “only flat out comedy and his most overtly sexy movie,” as Schickel contends,23 it did not sit well with the morality police, who particularly objected to the promotion of the picture (Baker in a crib on a block-long billboard) and the notion of what Schickel dubs “childish eroticism.”24

Schickel also argues that with Baby Doll, “Kazan’s filmmaking was never more propulsive,” adding, “this movie just barrels along its tracks.”25 But if Baby Doll is propulsive, A Face in the Crowd is equally frenzied. To match the whirlwind firestorm let loose by musical drifter turned multimedia darling Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, Kazan maintains a vigorous pacing throughout the picture, intensifying a cynically Wilder-esque depiction of talking head manipulation (an astute sign of things to come, certainly in American society).

As written by Budd Schulberg, Lonesome, played by a stunningly bombastic Andy Griffith, calls out social inequality while corrupting the little man for his own gain. In doing so, he embodies an advertising composite of salesmanship and showmanship. Yet somehow, the megalomaniacal demagogue has an odd sort of authentic charm, at least to start with. If he is not entirely unlikable, it is largely because of Patricia Neal as Marcia Jeffries, who strikes a romantic dynamic with Lonesome, but also sees the profitable potential. The ambivalent reaction to the verbose blowhard, by she and the viewer, is partly why A Face in the Crowd remains such a challenging film. Revealing the humour in the effectiveness of Lonesome’s power-wielding persona, the movie is another rare Kazan comedy. “Cheerless, yes,” according to Sam Wasson, “but with a sense of humor that is never at odds with the director’s sensibility, one that, contrary to Kazan’s ideological agenda, offers even the most hateful character a touch of humanity.”26

Elia Kazan

A Face in the Crowd

As timid as Griffith is rowdy, Montgomery Clift stars as Chuck Glover in Wild River (1960), which is as subtly compelling as A Face in the Crowd is aggressive. It is also Kazan’s most underrated film; made as part of his contract at Fox, which had little interest in the property, the project afforded Kazan creative freedom, but it also led to poor distribution.

With Osborn again providing the screenplay, Wild River follows Clift’s Tennessee Valley Authority field agent as another Kazanian lone man on a mission. This time, it is he, and the agency he represents, against a proud, belligerent populace headed by Ella Garth (Van Fleet), an elderly woman who refuses to give up her land in order to salvage the surrounding area. The duality of their situation is the kind of two-sides-to-every-story scenario Kazan favoured. Chuck is an outsider who appreciates the old woman’s predicament, agreeing that, “rugged individualism is in our heritage.” But he has a job to do, and Ella, too, bears some responsibility for her stubborn, if commendable, refusal to accept the forced progress.

Elia Kazan

Wild River

First seen silently observing Chuck’s confrontation with her grandmother, widow Carol Garth Baldwin (Lee Remick) guides the heart of Wild River. A natural chemistry develops between her and Chuck, despite their ostensibly opposing situations and the social friction caused by their affair. Clift, whom Kazan had directed sixteen years prior in New York, gives a sensitive performance that melds naturally with Remick’s delicate sensuality. This was despite Clift struggling with a number of personal issues, alcoholism among them. Evoking the film’s lush landscape, Ellsworth Fredericks’ photography produces some of the most elegiac imagery in Kazan’s cinema. “I don’t think of myself as a realist,” Kazan said. “I think of myself as a poetic realist or ‘essentialist.’”27 Here, more than in any of his other films, there is a whimsical, lyrical sense of romance and plaintive humanity. “The environment was not just something you played against, it was something you played inside of,” he noted.28

As he did with East of Eden, Kazan again tapped into the trials and tribulations of American youth with Splendor in the Grass. Previewing the cultural issues that resurfaced in a seismic way later in the decade, the film takes place during a time of national change and crisis, which serves as the framework for a more intimate representation of young lovers experiencing awkward romantic pangs and ideological uncertainty. High school students Wilma Dean Loomis (Natalie Wood) and Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) writhe against outmoded sexist concepts and expectations from their respective families and those dictated to by small-town mores. Hypocritical views of male and female equality are exposed with a surprisingly frank sexuality, albeit one that is innocently founded and not nearly as feverish as Baby Doll.

Kazan said Splendor in the Grass was the easiest picture he ever made, because the script by William Inge, who won an Oscar for his screenplay, “was so good. It was pure and simple.”29 It was also Kazan’s last commercial success.

It may not have made much money, but from the moment he addresses the viewer in an opening voiceover, it is clear that America America (1963) is a deeply personal release from Kazan. Based on his own uncle’s journey to the United States, this sweeping picture presents in historic detail the late nineteenth century clashes between Turkish forces and Greek and Armenian minorities. Emerging from the oppression and turmoil is a young man, Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis), whose Anatolian smile (a literal expression and state of mind Kazan himself proudly possessed) carries him resiliently forward in the face of cruelty and misfortune.

Stavros exemplifies the desire and desperation of an eager immigrant, tolerating poverty, physical strife, and revolutionary unrest, all incongruously side by side with lives of wealth and privilege. Avoiding the various temptations that come his way, Stavros becomes but one in a vast sea of immigrants, shown by Kazan in a glorious finale of accomplishment, emotional ecstasy, and a dizzying state of confusion and excitement.

Made with an undeniable passion, America America was Kazan’s favourite film – but by his own admission, not his best. Still, it would garner him Oscar nominations for best picture, for his screenplay, and, for the last time, his direction. Shot partially in Greece and Turkey, with phenomenal cinematographer Haskell Wexler behind the camera, America America has a palpable sense of an exotic, even ancient, setting. It also features a less concrete narrative. There is a general direction, insofar as Stavros is making his way to America, but over the course of the film’s three-hours, it is a largely episodic chronicle, with digressions, loose ends, and more than one sequence that could have spent more time in the cutting room. From this point on, as Haden Guest notes, Kazan’s films “begin to embrace a more overt style and narrative complexity,” seen as keeping with his “reinvention of himself as a novelist.” Guest continues, “The bold stylization of Kazan’s last four films is also a direct and important expression of their fractured and spatiotemporally ambiguous narrative and stylistic structures.”30

Equally as personal as America America, if more contemporary and urgent, is The Arrangement (1969), based on Kazan’s own novel. Alongside Faye Dunaway and Deborah Kerr, Kirk Douglas stars as Eddie Anderson – a modern, disenfranchised male weighed down by the routine of upper class domestic banality. The film begins with self-inflicted catastrophe, but as Eddie’s life takes a turn, his penchant for philandering and compulsive professionalism is presented with an opportunity for change.

Though not entirely successful, Douglas goes all out in his portrayal of a psychologically imbalanced middle-aged man. He is, at various wavering points, comic, gloomy, and hysterical. Unfortunately, The Arrangement contains little to no restraint. Kazan may be raising real issues about “the good life” and where one places existential value, but the disjointed structure and erratic style of this self-conscious character study just barely straddles the fine line between personal passion project and self-indulgence. As Kazan himself admitted, “I think I goofed on the movie.”31

After The Arrangement, Kazan knew he did not want to make another film in Hollywood, but he did not want to give up filmmaking altogether. With The Visitors (1972), he got just what he was looking for, finding “the joy of filmmaking again.”32 Based on a story written by his son, Chris Kazan, this low-key independent feature was shot on super 16mm with a bare minimum crew in Kazan’s own home.

As former members of his platoon show up to his house mysteriously unannounced, Vietnam veteran Bill Schmidt (James Woods, in his film debut), his wife Martha (Patricia Joyce), and her father Harry (Patrick McVey), quickly discover these acquaintances have more on their mind than a simple visit. Tension and anxiety develop from their masking pleasantries, obscuring a past transgression left undisclosed for a considerable portion of the film and only eventually given violent, sexual, and dogmatic revelation. What starts as an odd sort of home invasion advances into a treatise about wartime morality and the lasting effects of combat.

For his final feature film, now with decades’ worth of knowledge pertaining to the ins and outs and ups and downs of Hollywood, the ugly truths beyond the glamour and the myths, Kazan took on Harold Pinter’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon (1976). Pulling the curtain back on movie magic to reveal faded glamour and distended quixotic illusions, the film stars Robert De Niro as whiz-kid Monroe Stahr, an Irving Thalberg-type producer disenchanted with the ever more money-minded movie business and the two-faced people who drive the industry. Stahr is competent, trusted, and experienced, but this gaunt, shrewd “boy wonder,” like many a Kazan protagonist, ultimately ends alone as an outsider.

Though boasting a cast of classic Hollywood icons and relatively new rising stars – Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Jeanne Moreau, Jack Nicholson, Donald Pleasence, Ray Milland, and Dana Andrews, to name a few – The Last Tycoon is marred by stilted performances and a low dramatic thrust. Like its unfinished source novel (or like Stahr’s work-in-progress beach house), the film feels not fully formed. As revealing as its final scene and penultimate line (“I was just making pictures”) may be, even Kazan recognised the film’s failures, stating that the property, like his own novel of The Arrangement, “should have remained on the bookshelves.”33

Elia Kazan

Tycoon

Though Elia Kazan lived until the age of 94, he would not make another film, which is unfortunate for more reasons than one. Aside from signalling the end his cinematic output, for a fair amount of time, Kazan was beleaguered by the recent memory of his final string of commercial disappointments. However, a 1999 honorary Academy Award would in many ways resurrect the life and work of this American master (for better or worse, as it turned out, with many still holding a grudge for his HUAC testimony).

Now, years on, regardless of how much his personal principles may still cloud the critical judgment of his work, the general consensus is that Kazan’s filmography is an exceptional catalogue of resolute themes, extraordinary performances, and illuminating – in some cases prophetic – narratives. And these features endure. “Kazan’s films engage seriously with the social problems and conflicts of their day,” writes Dombrowski, “but their timeless appeals to feelings of alienation, longing, and rebellion return them to us again and again.”34

 

Filmography

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
  • The Sea of Grass (1947)
  • Boomerang! (1947)
  • Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
  • Pinky (1949)
  • Panic in the Streets (1950)
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
  • Viva Zapata! (1952)
  • Man on a Tightrope (1953)
  • On the Waterfront (1954)
  • East of Eden (1955) also producer
  • Baby Doll (1956) also producer
  • A Face in the Crowd (1957) also producer
  • Wild River (1960) also producer
  • Splendor in the Grass (1961) also producer
  • America America (1963) also writer
  • The Arrangement (1969) also writer and producer
  • The Visitors (1972)
  • The Last Tycoon (1976)

 

Select Bibliography

Dombrowski, Lisa, ed. Kazan Revisited. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011.)

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

Schickel, Richard, Elia Kazan: A Biography. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.)

Young, Jeff, Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films. (New York: Newmarket Press, 1999.)

 

Articles in Senses of Cinema

East of Eden by Terry Ballard
http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/feature-articles/eden/

A Face in the Crowd by Thomas Beltzer
http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/cteq/face_in_the_crowd/

Panic in the Streets by Adrian Danks
http://sensesofcinema.com/2000/feature-articles/panic/

“People are waiting”: Elia Kazan and America America by Adrian Danks
http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/cteq/people-are-waiting-elia-kazan-and-america-america/

Identity in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass by Arthur Rankin
http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/cteq/identity-in-elia-kazans-splendor-in-the-grass/

East of Eden by Michael Da Silva
http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/cteq/east-of-eden/

 

Endnotes

  1. Elia Kazan, A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), p. 380.
  2. Richard Schickel, Elia Kazan: A Biography. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), p. 105
  3. Kazan, p. 245.
  4. Schickel, p. 121.
  5. Jeff Young, Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films (New York: Newmarket Press, 1999), p. 26.
  6. Kazan, p. 316.
  7. Schickel, p. 163.
  8. Young, p. 46.
  9. Schickel, p. 206.
  10. Ibid., p. 201.
  11. Young, p. 192.
  12. Ibid., p. 63.
  13. Kent Jones, “The Quiet Side of Kazan,” in Lisa Dombrowski, ed., Kazan Revisited (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), p. 13.
  14. Ibid., p. 16.
  15. Schickel, p. 247.
  16. Ibid., p. xiv.
  17. Dombrowski, p. 23.
  18. Schickel, p. 275.
  19. Kazan, p. 485.
  20. Dombrowski, p. 163.
  21. Young, p. 225.
  22. Dombrowski, p. 81.
  23. Schickel, p. 335.
  24. Ibid., p. 334.
  25. Ibid., p. 339.
  26. Dombrowski, p. 94.
  27. Young, p. 218.
  28. Dombrowski, p. 143.
  29. Young, p. 264.
  30. Dombrowski, p. 192.
  31. Schickel, p. 422.
  32. Kazan, p. 755.
  33. Ibid., p. 762.
  34. Dombrowski, p. ix.

About The Author

Jeremy Carr is a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a
visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular
Culture. He has written for Cineaste, Film International, CineAction, Cinema Retro, MUBI’s Notebook, Vague Visages, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Moving Image.