The Personal Truth of Elia Kazan

“There are no good or bad people; some are a little better or a little worse, all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice”

A still from Viva Zapata!, a film by Kazan | Photo: Filmmuseum

When “Mitch” tears off a Chinese lantern and exposes the face of “Blanche DuBois” to the glare of a light bulb, he is not merely exposing her personal lies and hypocrisy but those of society as a whole. Both director Elia Kazan and playwright Tennessee Williams were perfectly clear in their aim in A Streetcar Named Desire: to put truth on the screen.

Streetcar was shown to a packed house in the Austrian Film Museum as part of a major retrospective of the work of Elia Kazan through Mar. 4. While Blanche may have aroused mirth in the audience that night – as she did when the film was first shown in 1951 – the movie did not fail to impress. The performances – Karl Malden as Mitch, Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois, and especially of the overwhelming Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski – were outstanding. Nor did the film fail to arouse feelings of compassion in at least some of those present, which was what both Williams and Kazan had hoped for. Both wanted to force us to confront our own humanity, and both succeeded in doing so.

“There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people.” Tennessee Williams wrote to Elia Kazan about his work: “Some are a little better or a little worse, but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice; a blindness to what is going on in each other’s hearts… Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos.” This, Kazan succeeded at putting on the screen.

Initially Kazan had no desire to direct Streetcar for the screen, as he had on stage in 1947.

“Oh, God, Tenn,” he said to Williams, “it would be like marrying the same woman twice.” Then he changed his mind, seeing an opportunity to “open up” Streetcar and shoot on location. This idea he rapidly abandoned. What he ended up doing was, in effect,  filming the stage play. This allowed him to concentrate on his strength, which was directing actors.

Elia Kazan was a product of Lee Strasberg’s and Harold Clurman’s Group Theater in the Greenwich Village of the 1930s. What he sought to do and what he achieved was to marry the techniques of the Group, with its approach, derived from Stanislavsky, of working from inner experience with the “picture” theater he had learned at Yale. It was this skill as a theater director that opened the door to Hollywood.

When he was at the Group he was briefly a member of the Communist Party, a decision that was to later cost him dear. When asked to appear before the infamous HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) in 1952, he named names. He always claimed he only gave those the Committee already had, but his naming helped destroy the careers of a number of people, including that of Zero Mostel.

When, years later, he talked about his actions, he claimed to remain “ambivalent.”

“Obviously there’s something disgusting about giving other people’s names,” he told Michel Ciment in 1974, and “I’ve often, since then, felt on a personal level, that it’s a shame that I named people, although they were all known, it’s not as if I was turning them over to the police; everybody knew who they were…” Ultimately, he said, “I told the truth.”

His first major picture was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, based on the 1943 novel by Betty Smith, which he made in 1945. Perhaps it was regrettable that the cameraman on the film, Leon Shamroy, referred to the scenes he had to film as “garbage” and had the hubris to expect to be named co-director, but Kazan would never be served by an equally capable cameraman again. It was Kazan’s failure to find an equivalent of Ingmar Bergman’s Sven Nikvist or Satyajit Ray’s Subrata Mitra that prevented him from ultimately rivaling the two contemporary directors he admired most.

Even his awe-inspiring On the Waterfront, filmed by the able Boris Kaufman, and the extraordinary America, America, filmed by the brilliant Haskell Wexler lack the visual mastery of his Swedish and Bengali rivals. Perhaps this was due to the fact, as Wexler put it, that he “lacked an eye”.

Given the chance encounter in a hotel with producer Sam Spiegel that enabled On the Waterfront to be made at all, one should not overly criticize the aesthetics and simply be grateful that it was made at all. All the major studios turned it down, and it was made on a shoestring budget: a mere $880,000 of which Kazan and Brando got 100K a piece. It proved to be the last time Brando worked with Kazan, a tragedy for both. Brando could not forgive Kazan for his HUAC testimony. The subsequent decline in his career suggests that he had needed him.

Kazan in his turn would never cease to sing Brando’s praises as the one true acting genius that he had worked with. Nevertheless, their joint venture Viva Zapata! did not go well, although this may have had more to do with the poor screenplay by author John Steinbeck than anything else.

But if Viva Zapata! failed to ring true, Steinbeck’s novel that inspired the film East of Eden was extraordinary. Not only did it resonate on a personal level, echoing the difficult relationships both Kazan and James Dean had with their fathers, it had a biblical resonance too. Kazan soon realized that James Dean had the inner truth necessary for the part, even going as far to say that he “was Cal,” the anti-hero of the film. Yet, he never joined the James Dean fan club, although it was he who had discovered him, and compared his lack of technique unfavorably with Brando’s excellence.

The story of East of Eden, with its attack on the hypocrisy of Middle America, feels as relevant today as it was when it was made in 1955. Kazan succeeded, once again, in putting truth on the screen.

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