September 7, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
He directed twenty-one actors to Academy Award nominations and nine wins; he won two, and one honorary Oscar. He was nominated for seven Tony Awards as well, winning three. He co-founded the Actors Studio. He was Elia Kazan, the subject of today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”
September 7, 1909 marks the birthdate of Elia Kazan, probably the most influential director of the twentieth century. Canny, charismatic and controversial, the diverse list of plays and films he worked on run the gamut. He worked side by side with so many great writers that his influence on their work cannot be underestimated. Here’s a sampling of just some of the authors, playwrights and screenwriters with whom he collaborated in theatre and film (alphabetically, so as not to rate anyone’s importance):
Robert Anderson (Tea and Sympathy)
James Baldwin (Blues for Mister Charlie)
S.N. Behrman (One Touch of Venus, Jacobowsky and the Colonel, But for Whom Charlie)
Moss Hart (Gentleman’s Agreement)
William Inge (The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Splendor in the Grass)
Alan Jay Lerner (Love Life)
Archibald MacLeish (J.B.)
Arthur Miller (All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, After the Fall, Incident at Vichy)
Paul Osborn (East of Eden)
Harold Pinter (The Last Tycoon)
Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd)
John Steinbeck (Viva Zapata!)
Thornton Wilder (The Skin of Our Teeth)
Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, Baby Doll)
There is simply no other director who even comes close to approaching such a prolific and wide-ranging set of stories from so many award-winning writers. He was the #1 choice, the go-to director, from the early forties until the mid-sixties. It’s amazing how much he crammed in during such a relatively short period of time.
As for the actors he worked with… well, suffice it to say, he’s the only one who directed the likes of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean in major motion pictures. To list all who benefited from his guidance would be considerable, many of whom came out of the Actors Studio (which he co-founded in 1947 with Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis). Add teacher to his list of accomplishments, alongside novelist, which is how he spent his years after retiring from directing in 1976 with The Last Tycoon, which starred Robert DeNiro and featured Jack Nicholson. He also wrote an autobiography, A Life (1988), which clocks in at 825 pages of text. And yes, it’s a fascinating read.
Elia Kazan was born Elias Kazantzoglou in Turkey, the son of George and Athena Kazantzoglou (née Shishmanoglou). His father came to America first, later sending for his family, which included Kazan when he was four, along with his mother and younger brother. Small for his age, Kazan was withdrawn as a child, but also very bright. He wound up graduating cum laude from Williams College, then moving on to study Drama at Yale University for two years. He had early success in the theatre as both an actor and, on a smaller scale, as a director with the Group Theatre (which in the decade until they disbanded, radically redefined stage drama). In 1935, he appeared in Clifford Odets’s pro-labor drama Waiting for Lefty, and his performance as a striking cab driver made Hollywood take notice. Kazan couldn’t resist the lure of what the movies might potentially do for his career, only the roles the studios cast him in — ethnic tough guys for the most part — didn’t fulfill his forceful ambition. Returning to New York and the Group, he threw himself in with a fervor, and did whatever he could to help contribute to their cause, be it as actor or director.
When in 1942, Kazan staged Thornton Wilder’s dense and complicated The Skin of our Teeth, he turned it into a visually arresting production, highly praised for the caliber of the performances he elicited from Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March, Florence Eldridge and the twenty-two-year-old Montgomery Clift. After that, Kazan was on a tear, and practically all of the eight shows he staged over the next seven years were hits. Hollywood came calling a second time, this time for his directing prowess, and somehow, he managed to find the time to direct a film a year while still maintaining his presence on Broadway. He won a Tony in 1947 for Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, the Oscar in 1948 Gentleman’s Agreement (which also won Best Picture) and another Tony Award for Death of a Salesman in 1949. No one before him (or since) conquered both mediums with such velocity and intensity of production.
Unfortunately, by 2003, when Kazan died at the ripe of old age of ninety-four, most of his obituaries led with the story of his naming names in 1952 to the House Un-American Activities Committee in order to save his Hollywood career. That may seem unjust, but although Kazan had a hatred for Communists (he had joined the party in 1934, only to renounce his membership and leave two years later), his later actions had severe consequences for actors, writers and directors in the film business who were being prevented from working purely by innuendo, and without benefit of a trial to clear their names. By participating with the committee and handing over the names of people he thought or knew to be Communists, Kazan was directly responsible for aiding in the halting of those artists’ abilities to feed their families, some of whom were his friends. Kazan could have continued working on the east coast in the theatre, barely suffering any interruption of earning a living at what he did best. But he selfishly wanted to work in film and giving the committee what they wanted (names they already had) was his only way of guaranteeing that. They wanted a big name like Kazan to betray his friends. They wanted to humiliate him in order to allow him to work. It was all a power play, pure and simple. Over the years, Kazan attempted to explain why he chose to aid the overzealous committee, which allowed him to direct films throughout the 1950s, all while the blacklist held its grip on the film industry. He even won a second Academy Award for On the Waterfront, a thinly-veiled attempt by he and screenwriter Budd Schulberg to positively portray someone who rats on his pals — the stool pigeon in the form of Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy.
This may feel like a harsh assessment, but much like another tough and ambitious director who found himself in a closely identical situation — the stage director and choreographer Jerome Robbins — each made the same choice. Not known for being particularly nice guys and ruthless in their ambition, those traits came to the fore when each was confronted with the loss of the work that defined them. Both were genuine artists and deeply talented men, who were individualistic in what they brought to most everything they helped to create. So, the big question, then as now, still hovers: Do we censor artists for their personalities? Do we boycott their work because we don’t like them as human beings? I’m sure at the height of the blacklist, a period I didn’t live through, such decisions were brutal for everyone.
By writing this, I began with every intention to celebrate Kazan’s work as an artist. Then, in going over his career, I couldn’t help do what most everyone else has done over the years: boiling it down to this one choice he made and how he should be judged. It was a decision he claims not to regret, though others certainly did. When his lifelong friend and contemporary, the actor Karl Malden, then in his late 80s and a former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, pushed Kazan’s name through a select committee to award him a lifetime achievement Oscar (in addition to the two he had collected for specific work), the controversy that followed blew up in everyone’s faces. The night of the awards carried the drama of whether or not Kazan would be booed or cheered when he walked out on stage. This was 1999, and here was Kazan being tried in the press all over again at the age of ninety for his actions nearly fifty years ago. Some gave him a standing ovation; some sat with their arms folded and scowled. It’s all here to see and frankly, I found the whole thing very sad (his entrance, and the audience response, begins at 1:18).
The plays Kazan directed for the stage are ephemeral, as such work always will be. I would have loved to have seen his A Streetcar Named Desire or Death of a Salesman, or any of the twenty-five Broadway productions he directed in his lifetime (go back over the list of the titles above — it’s astounding). The film work will always be there, and with so many riches to choose from, I urge anyone who wants to see acting at its realistic best, watch the last scene from the first film Kazan ever directed, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). Yes, he grew to become a much more confident director with the camera, but in terms of what he knew about actors, it doesn’t get much better than Dorothy McGuire (Mrs. Nolan) and Lloyd Nolan (Mr. McShane) in this marriage proposal that begins 2:02:50… the second to last scene in the film.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.