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Book softens director Elia Kazan’s reputation

Testimony has long overshadowed his film career
/ Source: Reuters

He was one of Hollywood’s and Broadway’s greatest directors, and the canon of American literature owes him mightily for being the midwife who brought ”Death of a Salesman” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” to life.

But today the legacy of Elia Kazan -- the man who also helped mold Marlon Brando and James Dean into world-class actors and establish the careers of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller -- is overshadowed, obliterated for some, by one’s day testimony before the communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.

Kazan named 16 names, including a close friend who agreed to be named, and two Communist Party functionaries, all of whom may have been known to the committee before Kazan’s deposition. And then in the major mistake of his career, he took out an ad in the New York Times defending what he did -- becoming fixed in Hollywood folklore as the symbol of the informer.

Even his most famous movie, “On the Waterfront,” came to be viewed by some critics as a spirited defense of naming names.

Now, a 544-page biography by film historian and Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel tries to set the record straight and give Kazan, who died in 2003 at age 94, the credit that he deserves as a torrential force of American film and theater. He was perhaps the country’s dominant director from the mid-1940s through the early 1960s before assignments dried up and he wound up writing mass market bestsellers that bordered on the unreadable.

At the same time, Schickel’s book “Elia Kazan” opens up old wounds and argues that the director’s “crime,” the one for which many in Hollywood never forgave him, was a legitimate response by a man who had turned on the party some 17 years before his testimony and considered it a threat to democratic society.

“Kazan was opposed to them ... He didn’t just opportunistically rat out his friends,” Schickel said in a recent interview.

Unjust causeSchickel also quotes Kazan as saying at the time that he would give up making movies for a worthwhile cause, but this was not it.

“What the hell am I giving up this up for, to defend a secrecy I didn’t think right and to defend people who’d already been named or soon would be by someone else? I said I hated the Communists for many years and didn’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them.”

But years later Kazan admitted deep regrets. “I thought what a terrible thing I had done; not the political aspect of it because maybe that was correct but it didn’t matter now. Correct or not, all that mattered was the human side of things. I felt no political cause was worth hurting another human being for.”

Kazan’s critics pretended that he never expressed regrets and staged ugly scenes leading up to and including the 1999 Academy Awards where Kazan received an honorary Oscar. About a third of the audience at the Oscars refused to join a standing ovation.

Schickel, who was compiling a montage of film clips about Kazan for the Oscar program met resistance from Marlon Brando, who refused to allow any clip with him in it to be shown.

That meant that if Brando got his way, which he didn’t, no one would have seen scenes from “On The Waterfront” and ”Streetcar.”

Such was the emotion of the moment, but Schickel says look far beyond the results of that one “Dog Day’s Afternoon” in the life of Elia Kazan and try to come to terms with the magic he brought to the screen.

“He changed acting on the screen by getting actors to externalize their internal feelings --- as a way to get on screen what people are thinking about, what is moving them. It is different than movie acting which produced fabulous actors like James Cagney and Cary Grant but we  never saw this kind of externalization of inner states before.

“Within a decade, our whole idea of judging a movie performance was turned upside down.”