Elia Kazan reached the highest heights of the Broadway stage and the Hollywood screen. On stage, after working with the legendary Group Theatre in the ‘30s he directed the premieres of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. On screen, he won Academy Awards for directing Gentleman’s Agreement and On the Waterfront and coaxed some of the greatest performances in film from Marlon Brando, James Dean, Eva Marie Saint, Julie Harris, Andy Griffith, Karl Malden and others. Altogether, nine Oscars were won by actors in Kazan’s films.
The power and impact of Kazan’s work can be seen in The Elia Kazan Collection, an 18-disc box set that includes 15 of Kazan’s most important movies and a new, personal documentary, A Letter to Elia, from one of his most expressive fans, film director Martin Scorsese, and Kent Jones.
But there is another important part of Kazan’s legacy: A member of the Communist Party for 18 months in the mid-‘30s, during the McCarthy Era he became one of the most famous former communists to “name names”, or inform, on his one-time friends and allies. In 1952, Kazan was still a major progressive filmmaker in Hollywood when he was twice summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which was looking into left-wing influences in the motion picture industry. (Many would call such hearings “witch hunts”.)
In his first testimony, Kazan talked about his own involvement with communism and his subsequent disenchantment and revulsion with both the American party and the Soviet Union, the United States’ erstwhile ally in the Second World War. But when asked to give the committee the names of his former comrades, he refused.
Several months later, Kazan apparently had a change of heart, and named some of his former friends and associates in the Group Theatre, as well as a few others, as Communist Party members. Unlike other “friendly witnesses” who cooperated with HUAC, Kazan then took out a full-page ad in the New York Times defending his current liberal politics, his view of the Soviet Union as a tyrannical dictatorship and a threat to world peace, and his decision to implicate others. “It was because Kazan seemed to take the social content of his art so seriously that his appearance before HUAC caused such astonished dismay among many of his friends and colleagues,” wrote Victor Navasky in his book about the Hollywood blacklist, Naming Names.
In subsequent years, Kazan said that he had faced two “evil” choices when called before HUAC to become an informer, but save his career; or to refuse to cooperate, which would aid a movement (communism) and a country (the Soviet Union) he now despised, while also jeopardizing his career. He went on to make at least two movies that appear to justify his behavior: On the Waterfront (1954), where the hero (Brando) testifies in court against a murderous, Mob-dominated labor union, and 1972’s The Visitor (not included in the collection), an anti-Vietnam War film in which the lead character, a former American G.I. (James Woods), has testified against two platoon mates who had raped and murdered a Vietnamese woman.
In any event, while those who refused to testify against others found themselves on a blacklist, their Hollywood careers ruined, Kazan continued to prosper as a filmmaker and stage director. But for the rest of his lifetime, Kazan’s testimony remained either a permanent stain on his honor or a badge of courage, depending on one’s political perspective.
While The Elia Kazan Collection does not ignore Kazan’s actions and their aftermath, they are dealt with lightly and underplayed. Both Scorsese’s documentary and an accompanying, photo-filled 100-page book on Kazan’s films discuss his HUAC testimony and the controversy that erupted in 1999 when Kazan was given an honorary Academy Award. This honor garnered enthusiastic support from Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty and Karl Malden (actors who had worked for Kazan and revered him, whatever their opinions about his testimony), and Scorsese. The award generated equally vehement opposition by those who could not forgive him.
Still, this box set’s packaging of 15 of Kazan’s films, including the DVD debuts of five of them — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Viva Zapata!, Man on a Tightrope, Wild River and America, America — makes The Elia Kazan Collection indispensible for viewers interested in Kazan’s approach to political and social issues and in the triumph of Method acting on screen. Performances by Brando (in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront), Dean (in East of Eden) and others changed the landscape of film acting, bringing to the forefront a new type of emotional realism and psychological depth.
In addition to these masterpieces, as well as Gentleman’s Agreement, one of the first Hollywood movies to deal with anti-Semitism, the Kazan collection includes many notable films. Two of the director’s earlier movies, 1947’s Boomerang and 1950’s Panic in the Streets, show Kazan’s affinity for on-location filmmaking and his solid grasp of the kind of naturalism expressed by Italian neo-realists such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica. His outstanding, prescient A Face in the Crowd, from 1957, was one of the first movies to examine the manipulative power of modern media (in those days, radio and television) and the potential for their political abuse.
But 1963’s America, America, a deeply personal film (based on Kazan’s uncle) and the director’s acknowledged favorite among his own movies, is disappointing. This tale about a Greek immigrant and his difficult journey to the United States suffers from Kazan’s desire to make an epic. As gripping as his portrait may be of Greek and Armenian oppression in late 19th century Turkey and of one man’s desire to seek freedom and fortune in the United States, the film moves along far too slowly. A great film is never boring whatever its length, but at nearly three hours “America America” seems dragged out.
In Letter to Elia, Scorsese includes some footage of Kazan (who died in 2003) discussing his craft. “If you can stir up the real emotions,” Kazan says, “whether anger or love or desire… then you have something that is unique and unusual. That’s what drama is.”
“Stirring up emotions” was something that Elia Kazan succeeded at throughout his life and career — on the stage, on the movie screen and in the highly-charged political atmosphere of America during the Cold War and beyond.