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A Great Filmmaker and a Complex Man

A Great Filmmaker and a Complex Man

USC College professors provide perspectives on Elia Kazan, known for more than his critically acclaimed films. The discussion was held at the downtown Los Angeles Public Library.

By Pamela J. Johnson
January 2006

Quick. Elia Kazan. Your first thought.

The late director’s masterpiece “On the Waterfront”? “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “East of Eden”? Perhaps images of actors in Kazan’s films come to mind — Marlon Brando or James Dean?

You bet. But the next thought may drift to Kazan as a man who named names during the notorious Joe McCarthy-driven witch-hunts of the early 1950s. Or Kazan as Hollywood’s arguably most gifted persona non grata.

During a recent event, USC College’s Leo Braudy, a leading film critic, gave his perspective on this complex giant of American cinema.

Braudy, University Professor and the Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature, sat down with Time magazine movie critic Richard Schickel to discuss and debate the brilliance of the legendary artist also remembered for dishing out names to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The College’s Steven Ross, chair and professor of history, acted as moderator at the ALOUD event held Jan. 12 at the downtown Los Angeles Public Library.

When it comes to movies, Kazan changed the rules.

“He was one of the first to make films that dealt in some ways with social issues,” Braudy told an audience of about 150. Braudy added that Kazan introduced the concept of the playwright or screenwriter working side-by-side with the director. “Previously,” Braudy said, “the producer bought the play and that was it.”

Kazan and scriptwriter Budd Schulberg worked closely to make “On the Waterfront,” a 1954 film inspired by a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles in the New York Sun about corruption on the New York-New Jersey docks. Braudy said Kazan had a gift for making movies that mirrored real life.

The film, starring Brando as a torn, flannel-clad Terry Malloy, was Kazan’s greatest work depicting realism and the working class, Braudy said. Kazan made the gritty black-and-white film after Hollywood had embraced Technicolor. It garnered eight Oscars, including one for best director, Kazan’s second in that category.

“There was a sense of texture of a neighborhood,” said Braudy, who wrote the book On the Waterfront (British Film Institute, 2005), about the making of the classic film. “There’s a sense that they aren’t just people standing in front of a set. “And we’re drawn to the characters in this film because they’re more like real people,” Braudy said. “That is, they are incomplete people. They are people who are evolving. Their contradictions and ambiguities make them visible.”

To heighten the realism, Kazan shot on location in the bitter cold and used real longshoremen as extras.

“Kazan used to say, ‘I loved the way those people looked’ [in “On the Waterfront”]. They weren’t all pink the way Hollywood people look. They looked cold and miserable and they were!’ ” Schickel said.

That kind of realism in today’s films is rare, Schickel said.

“Realistic cinema exists elsewhere in the world to this very day but not so much in the United States,” he said. “If you think ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is realistic cinema — I don’t think so.”

Schickel said Kazan was able to capture on celluloid the pangs of love, as seen in “On the Waterfront.”

“Kazan spoke with tremendous passion about the need of Terry Malloy and Edie [Malloy’s love interest in the film], that somehow the girl could bring out the best in him and define him,” said Schickel, Kazan’s longtime friend and author of Elia Kazan: A Biography (HarperCollins, 2005). “That maybe there was another Terry Malloy inside the roughneck.

“[Kazan] talked about that need. He said, ‘We all have that need, don’t we?’ Some girl that we should have maybe hooked up with and we didn’t. Some other thing we should have done that we didn’t do. That’s what makes this movie last.”

Kazan had a complicated, impassioned relationship with his first wife, Molly Day Thacher, a playwright. Kazan wed Thacher in 1932. They had four children and remained married until her death in 1963.

“Some part of his spirit was lost after that woman died quite suddenly,” Schickel said. “He needed her. To me, it’s a very interesting and a tragedy-touched relationship.”

Braudy agreed.

“She was always a powerful force in his life, even when he was having numerous affairs.”

Braudy attributed the lingering resentment against Kazan mostly to Molly. Kazan was greeted with a smattering of boos and hisses when he took the stage to receive an honorary Oscar in 1999, four years before his death. Braudy blamed the persisting hostility on an ad the couple placed in The New York Times the morning after Kazan testified to HUAC in 1952. In it, Kazan said testifying against communism was right and others should follow his lead.

“It was a real rubbing of the people’s nose into his testimony,” Braudy said. “And [Molly Kazan] wrote the ad. He no doubt agreed, but it was her impetus. She has played this odd role in the negative side of his reputation.”

Schickel said that Molly, more ideologically political than Kazan, pushed her husband to testify.

“It was a vast, terrible mistake to take that ad,” Schickel said. “It doesn’t make any difference if you testify. They knew all the names. All that was about was standing up for a principle. But he was a realist. And since the reality was that they had all the names, what the hell difference did it make? But she insisted on this.”

Braudy said Kazan’s upbringing influenced the sympathy-for-the-underdog theme in his work.

Born in Istanbul of Greek parentage, Kazan and his family migrated to New York in 1913 when he was four. His father, a rug merchant, expected Elia to someday take over the family business. Kazan wanted to act. In the 1930s, he acted with New York’s Group Theater and soon began directing. In 1947, he co-founded the Actor’s Studio. In the mid-1930s, he became a member of a secret communist cell. He denounced communism after 19 months.

During the event, a taped interview showed a white-haired Kazan looking reflective and wearing deep creases between his eyes. Schickel had taped the interview a few years before Kazan’s death in 2003. In it, Kazan hinted that the prejudices he felt growing up in a working-class  immigrant community made him rebellious.

"It made me join the Communist Party," Kazan said. "I got resentful of being excluded. I was an outsider. I’m also sympathetic to people that struggled to get up because I struggled to get up. I struggled all my life. I’m still struggling."