Sunday 4 December 2016

traitor of tinseltown

Published 25/09/2010 | 05:00

Martin Scorsese chose this year's Venice Film Festival to launch a fascinating new documentary about one of his great heroes, Elia Kazan -- the controversial director who helped make James Dean, Marlon Brando and Arthur Miller famous.

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The scarily energetic Scorsese has become something of an international curator of 20th-century cinema in recent years -- a few weeks back we mentioned his role in the restoration of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

With A Letter to Elia, Scorsese is attempting a restoration of a different kind, namely that of Kazan's critical and personal reputation. In the 1950s, Kazan was considered among the most talented filmmakers in America, and movies like On the Waterfront were hailed as instant classics.

But his decision to co-operate with Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 led to his being labelled a traitor by his friends on the American Left, and his legacy was forever tarnished.

Scorsese wants his genius to be remembered, but the sad truth is that it will never be completely separated from the fact that he did name names.

In his memoir America America, and the motion picture of the same name, Kazan described his dramatic flight to the US at the age of four.

He was born Elia Kazanjoglou on September 7, 1909, in the ancient city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) to a family of Anatolian Greeks. Life was not easy for ethnic Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, and on the eve of World War I, Kazan's parents emigrated to America, entering via Ellis Island and settling in New York.

His father hoped he'd join him in the family rug business, but as he grew up he drifted towards the arts, and specifically the stage. After graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts, he studied at the Yale University School of Drama for two years before moving back to New York in 1932 with hopes of becoming a professional actor.

Kazan had also become interested in Left-wing politics, and he got the chance to combine his two passions when he joined a new drama group called the Group Theater.

The company was presided over by Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, who put on plays about the lot of the working man and encouraged their actors to experiment with the new 'method' technique.

The young Kazan drank it up, and became one of the Group Theater's most versatile players. But if he had any illusions about his thespian abilities they were quickly dispelled, and he later remembered Strasberg telling him "you may have talent for something, but it's certainly not acting".

Kazan's forte turned out to be directing, which he took to in the mid-1930s. His vision, and knack for getting the best out of actors, was evident from the start, and in 1942 he scored his first major success with a production of Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth, starring Montgomery Clift.

He subsequently collaborated with Arthur Miller on the first productions of Death of a Salesman and All My Sons before directing a legendary 1947 production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.

Kazan's Streetcar was dominated by an electrifying young method actor called Marlon Brando, who was part of Kazan's new drama workshop, The Actor's Studio. And when he cast Brando in a film version of the play in 1951, he made him a star.

Kazan had begun dabbling in cinema in the early 1940s, and after a couple of shorts had achieved critical success with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), a (for the time) grittily realistic account of New York tenement life. He was always more of a theme-driven auteur than a studio director, and in his next feature, Gentleman's Agreement (1947), he tackled the taboo subject of anti-semitism. But A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) made his name as a filmmaker, winning four Oscars and pushing the boundaries in terms of its adult themes.

Fine adaptation that it was, Streetcar was a conventional-looking, set-bound and carefully staged film, but its success gave Kazan the creative freedom to move towards the gritty veracity of Italian neorealist cinema.

In On the Waterfront (1954), Kazan broke entirely with prevailing Hollywood conventions by shooting on location around the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, and refusing to sugar-coat his story's seedy themes.

And he coaxed from Brando what is considered by some the best screen performance ever, as the punch-drunk but morally upright ex-boxer Terry Malloy.

On the Waterfront won eight Oscars, and deservedly so, but by then a shadow had been cast over Kazan's success following his appearance as a 'friendly' witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In his youth, Kazan had been a member of the Communist Party, and when asked to identify other people in the entertainment industry who'd been Communists at that time, he supplied them with a long list that included the left-wing playwright Clifford Odets and actress Paula Miller, who later married Lee Strasberg.

He might have said nothing, but knew that McCarthy and his gang had the power to destroy his film career, and so chose the pragmatic course of co-operation. His decision cost him many friends, including Arthur Miller, and while Kazan would make a number of other significant films, including East of Eden (1955), Splendor in the Grass (1961), and a late work, The Last Tycoon (1976), the tag of traitor stuck.

When Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1999, at the age of 90, half of the Academy audience chose to remain seated when he was brought onstage. He did died peacefully in New York in 2003.

In his documentary, Scorsese endeavours to remind us of Kazan's huge talent and influence, while retaining a studied neutrality on the subject of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.

He's probably right. Elia Kazan did not behave very heroically during the McCarthy witchhunts, but he was hardly alone. And he did make three or four of the most important American films in the immediate post-war period, so perhaps it's time we stopped pretending that he didn't.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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