The Sept. 28 death of director Elia Kazan, at 94 in New York City, marks the passing of a fascinating, flawed filmmaker who directed a handful of inarguable classics. It closes the door on one of the 20th century’s most influential dramatic careers. And it leaves festering a 51-year-old wound that refuses to heal into history.
A member of the legendary Group Theatre in the 1930s, a founder of the famed Actors Studio, director of five Pulitzer Prize-winning plays (including Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), and winner of two Oscars for directing (1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement and 1954’s On the Waterfront), Kazan revolutionized American acting, married the psychological insights of the Method with craftsmanship, discovered Marlon Brando and James Dean, and coached landmark work from Brando (”Stella!”), Dean, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, Warren Beatty, and many others.
”You try to put little darts into their own histories,” Kazan once said about the way he learned and used everything he could about his stars. It sounds manipulative, and it was, but most actors welcomed the approach. ”When he had ideas,” recalls Eva Marie Saint, who won a supporting-actress Oscar for Waterfront, ”he would whisper in your ear, which was a very private kind of relationship. He became the father, the psychiatrist…. It was a gift.”
But for many, Kazan became the betrayer. When he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 and fingered at least eight former colleagues as Communist sympathizers, Kazan drove a wedge between himself and his peers that echoed long after the blacklist. Some saw a rat willing to do anything to save his career. Orson Welles supposedly said, ”Kazan traded his soul for a swimming pool.” Some saw Waterfront as a squealer’s brilliant apologia.
Kazan’s own explanations varied: His experiences with the Group Theatre turned him against communism; he didn’t give the committee any names they didn’t already know. Perhaps he was most honest when he said of those he had blacklisted, ”I’d rather hurt them a little than myself a lot.”
Kazan saw himself as outside any group of which he was a member, a useful place to be for a director but potentially ruinous for a man. The son of Greek immigrants, he was schooled in resentment as a pauper among the privileged at Williams College, and the entertainment community’s sense of entitlement likely never stopped rankling the man.
The controversy flared anew in 1999 when the Academy presented Kazan with a lifetime-achievement statuette, which he accepted to both applause and appalled glares. ”I’ll be watching [the Oscars] hoping someone shoots him,” said blacklisted director Abraham Polonsky. A more sympathetic Rip Torn likened Kazan to Galileo, calling him ”a man forced to recant by powers bigger than any of us.”