Monday, September 28, 2009

An Absence of Style? Elia Kazan at 100

I was perusing the pages of Wikipedia recently and came upon the birthday of Elia Kazan. He was born on September 7, 1909 making this past September 7th his 100th birthday. The 100s are always pretty big events in the blogosphere but I don't recall reading anything on Kazan on that day. Nothing odd about that, I don't get around the entire blogosphere so I'm sure there were posts written that I missed. It's just that even when I went to the sites that compile the links, such as Greencine Daily or David Hudson's The Auteurs, I still didn't find anything overwhelming. I do remember back in July of 2007 the legions of posts dedicated to Barbara Stanwyck when she turned 100 and every year there are birthday celebrations of the great figures of the cinema from Alfred Hitchcock to Bette Davis. But call out to the blogging world for a hundred year celebration of Kazan and you'll hear nothing but an echo in return.


We all know Elia Kazan ran afoul of the film community back when he decided to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a decision that seemed harmless to his career at the time (hell, one could even say it was helpful in that Oscars and glory followed with On the Waterfront) but a changing attitude towards the committee (dissolved in 1975) and the almost comically ironic fact that a committee investigating things "Un-American" and doing so by enlisting citizens to rat out each other's political preferences is more Soviet than American, decidedly placed Kazan on the wrong side of history. But as others much better at this than me have said, in the end, the guy had a family and wanted to protect his career. That doesn't make him the most courageous man on Earth but it's not a position any of us glass house dwellers are likely to be in anytime soon. But I don't think that's why he doesn't get the red carpet treatment on the movie blogs.

So what is it? Style, or the lack thereof. Kazan has no signature as a director, at least in none of the important cinephile categories of visual style, genre mastery or pacing/editing technique. Seeking out a connecting visual motif between Gentleman's Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire or America, America is a task doomed to leave the seeker unsatisfied and empty-handed. Seeking out genre mastery will also prove futile: Ford had westerns, Hitchcock suspense, Spielberg adventure/sci-fi but Kazan? Nothing. Well, drama, but that's the standard genre around which all others are built which is to say, to state the obvious, Ford's westerns are dramas too. How about editing or pacing? Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz come up spades in that area knowing how to race through set-ups and dialogue with ease allowing them to work in all genres, especially Hawks, and stamp their signature on each, but again, Kazan doesn't stand out here either.

No, in the end, Kazan's signature was the ease in which he worked with actors. Pick an Elia Kazan movie out of a hat and it probably has acting nominations and awards to its credit. From A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to On the Waterfront, Kazan movies are known for their performances. Both of those films received Oscars for acting and one of his films, A Streetcar Named Desire, damn near swept the field in 1951 winning all but Best Actor for Marlon Brando's seminal performance as Stanley Kowalski. But winning or being nominated for Oscars makes no difference because even in cases where there were no nominations, such as in the case of Andy Griffith's inexplicable snub for A Face in the Crowd (a film that received not one nomination - not one!) it is generally agreed that when one watches a Kazan movie, one will be treated to some great acting. And acting I have noticed (as Cinema Styles good friend Marilyn Ferdinand has noticed with dancing) isn't much discussed among cinephiles in general. To be sure, actors are discussed, from the aforementioned Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis to Spencer Tracy and Marlon Brando, but when a cinephile writes up a movie or a director's career they want a motif on which to hang their hat, a visual style, an editing technique. It might be accepted that Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw all do a great job in Jaws, but when a cinephile decides (s)he's going to analyze Jaws it's going to come down to Spielberg's cinematographic and editorial decisions more often than focusing on the performances. It is agreed, in other words, that while the performances are good what makes the movie good is Spielberg's decisions on how to show the shark, when to show the shark, how to create tension on the boat, and so forth. The performances are an added bonus.

But consistently eliciting great performances from actors is a talent underestimated in the film world and Elia Kazan did it better than most. Whether working with the stoic actor (Gregory Peck), the theatrical actor (James Dunn), the classical actor (Vivien Leigh), the entertainer/comedian turned actor (Andy Griffith), the new to the medium actor (Eva Marie Saint), the child actor (Peggy Ann Garner), the non-actor (Stathis Giallelis) or the reputation-precedes-him actor (Marlon Brando), Kazan knew how to draw a performance from all of them that was not only great but that didn't stand out in contrast to every other performance in the movie. He produced acting consistency in his movies. He standardized the acting in his movies by bringing the big actors down, the little actors up and the working actors to the fore. It's a cliche I can't stand but it's fitting: He made sure everyone was on the same page. In the end, the best way to describe his talents might be to call him an Ego-Wrangler. He could lasso vanity and insecurity in equal measure and haul them both in.

Elia Kazan died in 2003 and four years prior, in 1999, received an Oscar for a lifetime of achievement. Ten years later his 100th birthday didn't even show up on my radar and I'm sorry for that. I am an actor and know how difficult actors can be for directors. I also know how difficult a bad director can be for an actor. And I know that Elia Kazan's talent with actors is just as important to me as Hitchcock's talent with genre. So Happy Birthday Elia. Sorry it's so late.