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.

Why?

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.

36 comments:

Rick Olson said...

... 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.

The auteur policy at work. These things are more clearly attributable to one person, and are therefore easier to write about. It's harder to tell what about a performance is due to the actor vs the director, and thus harder for us non-actor types to tell.

"Ego-Wrangler." I love it. Nice job.

Greg said...

It's harder to tell what about a performance is due to the actor vs the director, and thus harder for us non-actor types to tell...

It's harder for all of us to tell which is why I'm going with the auteur cop-out myself and attributing the consistency in acting to Kazan. What I think it boils down to from my experiences is that certain directors display a respect for the actor that is noticeable and makes it so the actor is much more willing to follow direction. And that's about it, mutual respect. I can tell you, when a director has come across as the supreme dictator of what choices the actor should make I shut down and go my own way, ignoring the director, which then infuriates them and makes me smile.

Rick Olson said...

I've heard other actors say the same thing. You involved in any community theater or anything?

Greg said...

Not lately. I did theatre after college for a while but found the it unsatisfying. I tried some voice-over work for a while but the dues for SAG/AFTRA far exceeded the benefit of any work I was getting so I dropped out of it. Any day now though I expect to be cast as the lead in multiple projects of big name directors where the inevitable Oscar will finally come my way. This assumption is based solely on a hallucinigen I accidentally ingested this morning with my coffee.

Rick Olson said...

Gotta love that Mesc!

bill r. said...

I wonder what will happen when Lumet kicks off, since stylistically he's of the same mould as Kazan. Although I suppose the "genre" aspect that you describe in the post would come into play in his case.

I really do think the neglect of Kazan is due to his HUAC situation. It could just be a matter of people not wanting to open that can of worms and collectively deciding to let everyone else honor Kazan, but personally I think that's at the heart of it.

Greg said...

I'm sure that is a part of it, but I also believe (obviously considering my post) that his non-showy filmmaking style plays into it. Still, I'm probably playing down the HUAC thing too much. But to let that affect one's opinion of him as a filmmaker is wrongheaded. Someone could dislike or hate him for that as a person and still love his films but people often confuse the two. Probably due to the semi-justification he and Schulberg provide for their actions in On the Waterfront.

Jandy said...

The first thing that pops into my head when thinking about Kazan is "socially-conscious message picture." Anti-semitism (Gentleman's Agreement), labor conflicts (On the Waterfront), etc. I know that's an oversimplification, but I tend not to like films like that, so I tend to avoid Kazan films. Recognizing how many great performances he elicited, though, is a really great reminder and maybe impetus to give him another chance (even though I, apparently like most film bloggers, tend to fixate on virtuosic cinematography, mise-en-scene, and editing, rather than acting).

Greg said...

I admit, I do too. Like Rick said, the performance feels like it should be separated from the film as the actor's art and everything else should be the director's art, the stuff we all concentrate on. I admit also that, like you, I'm actually not a big fan of most of his films but think he was a very talented director with a great gift for directing actors and as such, should be recognized.

bill r. said...

Someone could dislike or hate him for that as a person and still love his films but people often confuse the two...

Polanski, meanwhile...oh, I won't bring that madness to your blog. Sorry...

Greg said...

Bring it on all you want. I had that front and center in my mind when I wrote this.

HUAC involvement = unforgivable.

Sex with 13 year old girl = cut the guy some slack.

Still, I like Polanski's movies, even love a few. Without doubt a great director. But I'm father to two daughters so please don't try to get me on board with the "hey, it was consentual" band wagon. I can tell you children don't know what they're consenting to until around... oh hell, let's say 27.

bill r. said...

Greg, it wasn't even consensual. Find the court transcript on-line. He drugged her, forcibly sodomized her, and she said in court that she didn't resist more because she was scared.

To be perfectly honest, I hate that I love some of his movies so much. It almost seems wrong.

Greg said...

Bill, I think most people view it as an innocent indiscretion, as if they kissed, hugged and then had some ice cream. Seriously, what you described is not in almost anyone's minds. But aside from all that there's this: I have two daughters so I have been around multitudes of girls in the 13 year old range and I've got to be honest, any man interested in a thirteen year old girl seems creepishly bizarre.

bill r. said...

Well, of course it's creepishly bizzare (bizarre? Why have I forgetten how to spell that word?). And Polanski actually acted on it, in the form of no-gray-area rape.

There is no room to pity this man. His childhood and what happened to Tate, yes, but not regarding his crime.

Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but I remember watching an episode of "American Experience" that about Kazan and Arthur Miller, and they said that the names Kazan gave HUAC were names they already had, he KNEW they had the names, and the people in question gave Kazan their permission, because what more harm could it do? Am I wrong about that?

Krauthammer said...

I'm too used to people who's art I love turning out to be assholes to feel bad about liking some of Polanski's films, but the apologists disgust me.

Greg said...

Bill, I don't know about the veracity of that one way or the other. I'll have to do some source reading on it. That of course would add yet another shade of grey to the Kazan story.

Krauthammer, me too. I dislike certain figures in the arts as people and yet love their art. It's conflicting at times to say the least.

The Siren said...

I've exhausted my Polanski thoughts so I will pop in to thank you for the link and the kind words, and for bringing up Kazan's 100th. I think you are on the money about his lack of consistent personal signature being what keeps him out of the pantheon; it's the same attitude that undervalues William Wyler, Henry Hathaway, Michael Curtiz and others who made entertaining and even great films.

I also like Bill R's comparison to Lumet, another director I admire.

It's funny, the two Kazan films that were always most respected were A Streetcar Named Desire (which in some ways hasn't aged well for me) and On the Waterfront (still great). But I bet now if you polled cinephiles a la Edward Copeland, I'll bet the odds-on favorite would be A Face in the Crowd.

My choice, however, would be A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the most beautiful depiction of a child's passionate love for a deeply flawed parent that I have ever seen. And how about the performances he got out of those actors? Peggy Ann has not even the faintest trace of mawkishness or mugging. And Dunn is perfection, I have never seen him as good elsewhere.

Greg said...

Peggy Ann Garner is amazing in that performance! And I agree about the film on the whole as well. It gets a lot of things right, including the moment when Dorothy McGuire just can't take the bullshit anymore and snaps, then pulls it back in and feels guilty.

And I bet you're right about A Face in the Crowd. I'd probably go with it myself as, yes I admit, I still have trouble separating the HUAC stuff from On the Waterfront. Nonetheless, Kazan deserves a lot more attention than he gets and when I discovered his 100th passed by with nary a mention I felt bad about it. I don't check the Wikipedia birthdays often enough. I should start.

The Siren said...

I think that A Face in the Crowd is in tune with the zeitgeist, rather than most people thinking too hard about Waterfront and HUAC. That connection was never a factor with me because the film's equivalence was so tenuous--a bunch of showbiz Marxists meeting over martinis does not equal the Hoboken waterfront Mafia. But A Face in the Crowd saw its reputation resurrected during the Bush years, which is no coincidence. Although, when it was discussed a while back at Dirty Harry's Place every poster there thought Lonesome = Obama. You can project whoever you want onto that character, it seems, with or without supporting evidence.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

You didn't mention my favorite Kazans: Panic In The Streets, as tightly wound a noir as you'll ever find, and his much-hated The Arrangement, which I enjoy every time I see it, especially for the beautiful montage at the beginning and the beautiful Faye Dunaway throughout. And Wild River is fabulous, too. I think there is a thread in Kazan's films, and that is conflicted humanity. Almost every one of his movies is about the difficult cost to the human soul of some action or circumstance.

For what it's worth, I'm not sure that either Hawks or Curtiz have a signature style, like Ford had his vistas. Their style was that they could do anything. Maybe you could pick out Hawks through his love of ensemble, but I'm not sure there are a lot of other signifiers. They were just genuinely talented all-arounders.

Greg said...

a bunch of showbiz Marxists meeting over martinis does not equal the Hoboken waterfront Mafia.

But that's exactly what offended people: the idea of equating naming the names of martini drinking Marxists before HUAC with naming the names of thugs and killers of the mafia. And naming the top thug Friendly so that Terry can become a "Friendly Witness" by naming him isn't ambiguous at all. Budd said none of it was connected but I simply don't believe that. He realized after the fact that the connection looked smug and self-serving so he lied and said he never intended a connection. That's the problem people have with On the Waterfront: the idea that anyone could be so arrogant as to equate their personal trials in Hollywood with murder and extortion with the mob. The movie is superbly done, it's that smug arrogance behind it that bugs me and others. But again, that's a personal annoyance with the "behind the scenes" stuff that I let interrupt my enjoyment of the movie but it doesn't cloud my judgment that it is nonetheless a very well made movie.

Although, when it was discussed a while back at Dirty Harry's Place every poster there thought Lonesome = Obama.

That's ridiculous. Lonesome is a populist broadcaster. He would match up to the like, such as Rush Limbaugh, not a politician like Bush or Obama. And, at least in the movie, he is party affiliation free so I say Rush only because the left doesn't have a radio personality of any political influence unless you count Don Imus, but why would anyone count Don Imus? And one final observation: at the time it was written it was the Southern Democrats who most closely mirrored the attitudes of Lonesome. Shortly after that many became Southern Republicans thanks to Civil Rights. Point is, party has always meant very little to these types, it's all about social attitude and it's that attitude that Lonesome exudes, which frankly Obama does not.

Greg said...

Larry, I love Panic in the Streets too. Forgot to mention that one, it's great with great acting. And I've never seen The Arrangement. I'll see if it's on instant viewing.

For what it's worth, I'm not sure that either Hawks or Curtiz have a signature style, like Ford had his vistas. Their style was that they could do anything.

That's about right. I still though think of Curtiz as having a great sense of pacing which is a definite style in my book.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Akira Kurosawa's 100th is coming up this March 23. I thought I'd give a heads up on that one.

Greg said...

That's one I don't think will be ignored. I'm sure there will be blogathons, festivals and parties. Unless he named names in Japan that I'm unfamiliar with.

Marilyn said...

My favorite Kazan is Baby Doll, a wonderful Southern Gothic farce you'd never expect from a filmmaker like him. I do think people recognize the actors' directors - how many times have we heard about Cukor and his skill with actresses. I always try to give credit to directors for pulling out great performances and providing a consistency in tone. You can always tell when the balance is off, and it almost always hurts a movie. I think lingering problems over his HUAC testimony have obscured him, but then there are other great but unshowy directors, like Robert Wise and Fred Zinnemann, who don't get their due either.

Thanks for the namecheck, Greg.

Greg said...

My namechecks are much more important than Ebert's namechecks. Right?

Non-showy directors like Wise and Zinneman do deserve credit too and maybe they soon will once everyone gets tired of exalting the same damn auteurs in one post or blogathon after another. If I do another blogathon it will be for a director like them, not a Welles or Kurosawa or Bergman or Fellini, etc. They've got due respect shooting out of their ears. Time to give some of the other, less signature style directors a look.

Marilyn said...

I'm kind of racking up my own "blogathon" on Zinnemann. I've reviewed 4 of his films. I think that's more than any other director on FonF.

Ebert who?

Peter Nellhaus said...

Well as one who likes to discuss actors, you might be the person to write about Toshiro Mifune's very different performance in Kurosawa's I Live in Fear, a role opposite of the type of roles he's usually associated with.

Pat said...

Having re-watched "A Face in the Crowd" only last week, it boggles my mind that it wasn't even recognized by the Academy at all. What a great film that is - and how prescient. Everything it said about the powers of mass media and and celebrity have come true, over and over and over. Most recnetly, at Jesse Kornbluth's Head Butler site, I saw Lonesome Rhodes compared to Glenn Beck - an interesting contrast to the Obama reference that the Siren cites.

Greg said...

Peter, I've never seen that performance but now you've piqued my curiosity.

Greg said...

Pat, it is such a terrific film. As for the Glenn Beck comparison I wouldn't go with that one either as he doesn't have much sway with the actual politicians like Lonesome did. I'd still say Rush is the best comparison but there have been so many populist personalities like Lonesome since that movie came out I guess most any populist talk show host will do. Still, like you said, incredibly prescient.

Margaret Benbow said...

Greg and Bill R., thank you for your very clear and direct condemnation of Polanski, who is a child-raping asshole. Nothing could be as shocking as the crime itself, but those who defend him come close.

In regard to Kazan, his fawning on HUAC blighted his reputation then, and still does. But I think that something more is involved in the lack of respect he receives. As I see it, although good performances abound in Kazan's movies, he didn't coax them out by hook, crook, or inspired revelation from unpromising materials. He had first-rate actors and simply stood back and let them do what they did best. Brando was going to do a great Terry Malone. Gregory Peck was going to carry Gentleman's Agreement on his stalwart shoulders. Kazan had very little to do with it. What he did have was the shrewdness to step back.

By the way, I'm always surprised when Vivien Leigh's performance as Blanche Dubois (A Streetcar Named Desire)is mentioned as a triumph--her Oscar notwithstanding. The misconception at the core of this performance is that Vivien's Blanche is such a fragile, crazy-eyed mess from the BEGINNING of the movie that there's almost no place of madness left for her to go.

Greg said...

Margaret thanks.

Kazan stepping back may well be a talent in and of itself with so many directors wanting to micro-manage each word and gesture of an actor's performance. Perhaps that's why he was so well-liked among actors.

As for Leigh I'm not sure I agree. I studied Williams and his plays for my senior thesis and oral exams in college and have been a fan ever since and I interpreted Blanche to have suffered the core of her mental break before the play even begins. Her madness doesn't have anywhere else to go which is why she runs into a stone wall with Stanley. Others have always played to her derangements and helped her along like a child but not Stanley who sees she's crazy and ruthlessly attacks, psychologically at first and finally, physically.

One of the reasons Blanche has ended up at her sister's is because of essentially being ostracized from her home after engaging in questionable behavior with young boys. This indicates that after the suicide of her husband, who shoots himself after a night of dancing that followed Blanche finding him in bed with another man, her break occurs. She is still functional as a person however and retains her craftiness.

One thing is clear throughout the play and that is that Blanche and Stanley are two sides of the same coin. Both possess a craftiness, a way of manipulating those around them that has always gotten them through life. Stanley rightly sees Blanche as a competitor and takes action. Stanley's final act of rape against her destroys what is left of her power.

I think Leigh does a good job of showing that she is already going nuts but is still sharp enough to "play" the helpless loon to her advantage. Stanley's final act simply takes the manipulation out of the picture and in fact turns her into what she has always halfway pretended to be to her advantage; a helpless child.

Margaret Benbow said...

Greg, you give me much food for thought here. I'd agree that both Stanley and Blanche exercise what you call "craftiness", but for wildly different goals. Stanley's brand is bullying, punitive, destructive: he's not only protecting his claim to what's his (Stella), but operating also out of his sheer appetite to dominate and, eventually, destroy.It's fun to him. By contrast, Blanche is attempting, with pathetically weakened resources, to retain her hold on the one person from her past who loves her and whom she loves (Stella); and to dazzle and flummux Mitch, with the almost-not-there aid of pink light bulbs and chiffon draperies. Leigh's Blanche is, from the get-go, something like a butterfly with tragically marred wings. At no point do I believe she could successfully withstand days and weeks of Stanley's barrage of insults and challenges all the way up to the penultimate scene (the rape scene). I think we needed to see a Blanche who, for much of the action, is better able to conceal her core wound (and I'd say you're right that this happened on her honeymoon when she was sixteen) so we only gradually, with heightening sympathy and horror, see its extent. With Leigh's Blanche, from the instant we see her in the train's steam and fog we get the clear impression of a battered flower whom life has flogged from pillar to post. I think we need to understand that more gradually.

Doug Bonner said...

I'm a filmmaker and I drop to my knees in reverence when Kazan is mentioned. The shot of Peggy Ann Garner sitting upright in a chair on a rainy afternoon while her mother gives birth in the next room is one of the greatest images of the latent strength that lies inside human frailty. Thanks for the post!

Greg said...

Doug, I'm happy to find there are several other fans of Kazan out there, an underrated director whose subtlety behind the camera often leads to his dismissal as an important artist.