Wednesday, April 28, 2010

#168: Heroes And Villains

So, why do I despise Elia Kazan? It’s a tricky question to answer because I adore some of his films and can more than appreciate his career as a film-maker and stage director. However it was what he did off the screen that made me reconsider the man.

There’s no denying that Kazan was one of the pre-eminent movie makers of the 20th century. Only an idiot would argue against his achievements. Two Academy Awards for directing, five additional nominations for directing and screenwriting – all in all his movies gained a staggering fifty nine nominations over a career spanning five decades, from the 1930s through to the 1970s. He also gained three Tony Awards for directing on stage, from eight nominations and won awards and nominations from around the world. Cannes, Venice, Berlin – Kazan was applauded worldwide. And rightly so. He made some of the finest movies of the mid 20th century and helped launch and revitalise the careers of actors such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Vivien Leigh, James Dean, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter, Lee Remick, and Jo Van Fleet, amongst others.

Kazan’s collaborations with Brando are the stuff of legends. I doubt that anyone can watch A Streetcar Named Desire in its purest form and not come away affected. Brando literally leaps off the screen and his sheer presence makes him attractive to both women and men. Streetcar shows Brando at his most animal savage and never has anyone cleared a table with such venom and hostility. Following that brilliant performance Kazan and Brando then gave us On The Waterfront, another stunning movie with another of Brando’s best performances. In my opinion, Brando in Streetcar slightly shades Brando in Waterfront, but he only won for the latter, and not the former. Hollywood just wasn’t that ready for someone as raw and brutal as Brando at the time. At the time Hollywood preferred its leading men to pitch woo and be handsome and cultured, ala Clark Gable. They didn’t expect a ruffian who’d as soon as rape a person as look at them and had muscles hanging out of their shirts, ala Brando. Between them, Kazan, Brando and Tennessee Williams reinvented the idea of a leading man.

So what did Kazan do that was so wrong? Easy – he blabbed to save his own skin. In 1934 Kazan joined the American Communist Party and appeared in a play written by Clifford Odets, who also belonged to the party. From there Kazan formed the Actors Studio, with Robert Lewis, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford, this still exists today. The concept of the Actors Studio was to teach actors a new way of acting, called Method Acting. Despite dabbling in movies, Kazan’s early impact was conducted on stage, directing All My Sons and Death of a Salesman for Arthur Miller and A Streetcar Named Desire for Tennessee Williams. From there a career in motion pictures beckoned.

Kazan still had to deal with his past though. In 1947 the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began an investigation, actually let’s call it what it was, a witch hunt, into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. The reasons for this are generally accepted to be one of control and political game. As Dorothy Parker commented to Martin Dies, the head of the HUAC at the time, “The people want democracy - real democracy, Mr. Dies, and they look toward Hollywood to give it to them because they don't get it any more in their newspapers. And that's why you're out here, Mr. Dies - that's why you want to destroy the Hollywood progressive organizations - because you've got to control this medium if you want to bring fascism to this country.” Such statements went right over the head of the HUAC. It really kicked into high gear in late 1947, when the HUAC interviewed over forty people who were actively working in Hollywood. Those who attended voluntarily were deemed to be "friendly witnesses" and during their interviews they began to name names and accused colleagues of holding left-wing views and belonging to various Communist organisations. It was the time of ‘Reds Under The Beds’. It mattered not who people were, the HUAC went after them all with the same zeal and venom. Those who were subpoenaed before the HUAC were labelled as being “unfriendly witnesses” and generally shouted down and denied natural justice. Most notorious of the latter group were the so called “Hollywood Ten”. Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson and Alvah Bessie all refused to answer any questions put by the HUAC and claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. All were subsequently found guilty of contempt of congress and received sentences of between six and twelve months in prison. None could appeal and none could defend themselves properly.

The main reason for this was the establishment of a “Black List” amongst the Hollywood studios. The general idea behind the List was that anyone who was named, or found guilty, or denied the charges would be added to the List and thus their career was finished. The List was always denied, but eventually details leaked out. Names on the list, over the years, included such luminaries as Lillian Hellman, Canada Lee, Paul Robeson, Larry Adler, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker, Leonard Bernstein, Eddie Albert, Richard Attenborough, Peter Viertel, Martin Ritt, Larry Parks, Luis Buñuel, Norman Lloyd, Barbara Bel Geddes, Orson Welles, Arthur Miller, John Garfield, Burgess Meredith, Gypsy Rose Lee, Jose Ferrier, Howard Koch, Lee J Cobb, Artie Shaw, Garsin Kanin, Pete Seeger, Kim Hunrer, Lena Horne and Edward G. Robinson. There were hundreds more. Some went into the theatre, some worked under assumed names, some moved to other countries and others fought the blacklist as best they could.

There were more casualties of the HUAC, both directly and indirectly. Charlie Chaplin was one high profile victim and was called to provide evidence in the late 1940s. Chaplin commented that he’d appear as his most famous creation, the Little Tramp, and offer his testimony in mime. Then he suggested that he wanted a Yiddish interpreter, despite his not being Jewish, or being able to speak or understand Yiddish. Eventually Congress decided to not call Chaplin, one only wonders about the performance of a lifetime that was missed. After making Monsieur Verdoux in the early 1950s Chaplin left America for a European holiday and his re-entry visa was cancelled before he even had a chance to leave American waters. As he said at the time, “.....Since the end of the last world war, I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America's yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.” Chaplin would not return to America for another twenty years.

Carl Foreman, a scriptwriter, was busily writing High Noon at the time when he was called up. Despite not being a member Communist Party for almost ten years at that point, Foreman refused to name names and was deemed an "un-cooperative witness" by the HUAC. This resulted in Stanley Kramer attempting to have Foreman removed from the film, but he gained support from none other than Gary Cooper and director Fred Zimmerman, both of whom threatened to quit the film if Foreman was sacked. It worked, but Foreman later recounted the pressure that Copper was placed under as being immense. As it stands High Noon is one of the most enduring westerns of all time, and one of the most damning attacks on the HUAC and the McCarthy era committed to film. At the completion of the film and knowing that his career in American films was finished, Foreman simply moved to England, where he wrote, amongst other movies, Bridge On The River Kwai. This was done under an assumed name and caused a lot of embarrassment when it won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, as everyone knew that the winner could not appear in person to collect it, and the person who did collect it, didn’t write the film. It took nearly thirty years before this was officially rectified and Foreman was awarded his Oscar. By that stage he was dead.

There were several others. To read the stories of the HUAC and the McCarthy era is to read stories of incredible bravery and incredible cowardice. Kazan’s story falls into the latter. Kazan was called before the HUAC in 1952 and initially refused to name names. His defence was that he was no longer a member of the Communist Party and had no connection, nor contact, with anyone who was a member. This wasn’t good enough for both Hollywood or the HUAC. At the time Kazan was making On The Waterfont with Brando and the threat was given – name names or not only will you be sacked from the film, but you’ll never work in Hollywood again. It was a standard threat, given to all who appeared or refused to appear. Kazan was in a bind and discussed the situation with close friend Arthur Miller, who he met and went walking with one afternoon before his next appearance.

Neither man ever really commented on what was said during that meeting, but towards the end of his life Miller intimated that Kazan had told him that he intended to name names in order to save his career. And name names Kazan did. He stood before the HUAC and rattled off eight names, including those of his Group Theatre colleagues, Phoebe Brand and Tony Kraber (the latter whom Kazan had himself recruited into the Communist Party in the 1930s) and actors such as Zero Mostel. Kazan attempted to justify this by stating that the bulk of the people he had named had already been named by previous witnesses. Indeed Budd Schulberg and Lee J Cobb had also named names; the reward for Cobb was to be blacklisted. Mostel too saw his career end for the 1950s. After making five movies in 1951, Mostel would wait another ten years before being offered a role, and then only made another five movies for the entire decade of the 1960s. He spent this time in the theatre, and experienced a resurgence in popularity amongst filmgoers in the 1970s.

Kazan, meanwhile, was allowed to return to movies and to finish his preparations and filming for On The Waterfront. First he had to deal with an angry Brando who, initially, refused to make the movie with Kazan at the helm. This was soon sorted out and filming went as planned. On The Waterfont has long been considered to be Kazan’s response to his critics, and, in particular, Arthur Miller, in relation to his HUAC testimony. Certainly when you watch the movie you can see the parallels in Brando’s character and Kazan’s own point of view. Silence = death, but sometimes speaking is the worst thing you could do.

Kazan ruined careers. None of the defenders or the revisionist historians can deny this, as much as they might try to. And in ruining those careers Kazan ruined lives. Kim Hunter, whose career was effectively ended after Kazan testified, insisted that Kazan deserved the honorary Oscar that Hollywood bestowed upon him in 1999, but I’m not so sure. And, for perspective, up to and including 1952 Hunter made nine films and won an Oscar for her brilliant performance as Stella in Kazan’s Streetcar Names Desire. She then made nine films in the next twenty years, with four of those coming between 1953 to 1963. Name me one other Academy Award winner whose career ended in such a manner. Here, I’ll help, other than the obvious ones, such as Peter Finch and Heath Ledger, there are none. Unless a person is dead their career thrives – look at David Niven for proof of that.

Why do I despise Elia Kazan so much? Because he had the chance to make a difference and he didn’t choose wisely. He did make a difference to a lot of people, but it wasn’t a positive one. His career continued to grow; he won more awards, became acclaimed and became very rich. Those who he named found themselves ostracised from society, found themselves out of work and found themselves destitute, in more than on case. Kazan named names, without any proof, and won, those who he named and were essentially convicted without defence, lost. I’ll leave it to others to decide the price of his victory. The HUAC and their witch hunt were one thing, as with all witch hunts it was wrong, set up to promote and further the careers of those sitting on the panels and to victimise the innocent. Would that the world be a far better place, where these things never happened.

Sadly the world, and a lot of those within in, are very flawed. And as with all flawed people, they refuse to see their own unique flaws. Kazan certainly didn’t see his, and managed to justify his actions until the day he died. Thus do all of those who do injustice to others and ruin lives and careers in the name of self preservation.


Anonymous said...

As Kazan wrote in A Life (A Lie as an idiot called it at Uni), there were no real witches in Salem, but there were real communists in Hollywood. He relates Arthur Miller was having diner at his house when he had the brainwave about the parallels between McCarthyism and witch hunts. He and his wife warned Miller about this apparent flaw, but he still went ahead and wrote it. Curses!

The Australian used to claim about once a month that McCarthy was the Chair of HUAC, and I attribute their wising up entirely to my writing every time that they did and saying "No, he wasn't".
~ Martin

Your Own Personal Jesus said...

John Parnell Thomas was the head of the HUAC when they really went after the Hollywood Ten. The irony was that Thomas was jailed in the same place as Lestor Cole and Ring Lardner, Jr. The former was warned not to retaliate against Thomas, but later wrote that the fact that Thomas was jailed and had fallen so far was all the retaliation he needed.

Did you ever read Bertolt Brecht's testimony? Some of the funniest stuff you'll ever see. I'll see if I can't find a copy and post it.

Anonymous said...

Only the same quotes from it (over and over), that would be excellent! Still, Brecht answered all their questions with good grace and humour and then fled to East Germany, not really an option for Kazan. Some are born to be playwrights, some are born to blog. And some are born to be great big fat finks. ~ Martin