Tuesday, June 19, 2007

There is an American Culture - Elia Kazan

The next time you're tempted to reduce American culture to bad television, Disney schlock, and Vegas, or to say that it is really an amalgam of other cultures, or that it simply has no serious culture of its own, I suggest you read Richard Schickel's critical biography of director Elia Kazan and remember the great theater companies of the 1930s - most notably The Guild, The Civic Repertory, and The Group - where the artists' ideals and work were very much intertwined, and where Elia Kazan grew up as an artist. Remember the influential acting teachers who came out of The Group - Lee Strassberg, Bobby Lewis, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner, and the generations of American actors they trained the likes of Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino, Geraldine Page, Lois Smith, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando, John Garfield, Kim Stanley, Shelly Winters and so many others. Think of the distinctly American voice of playwright Clifford Odets. And remember the great director Elia Kazan whose work included On the Waterfront, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, East of Eden,... and many other plays and films.

America does indeed have a culture and Richard Schickel's biography of Kazan places the story of his work (Kazan's autobiography A Life concentrates on the personal to the extent that he wished it known) in this rich context knowledgeably. He makes the smart choice of leading with the controversy over Kazan's lifetime achievement award by the Academy in 1999, which was greatly protested by many because he "named names" to the House un-American Activities Committees in its embarrassing witch hunts in early 1950s. I call this choice smart because despite the uncontested talent and influence of Kazan, this act has forever colored how he is remembered. Without addressing it straight away it would cast a pall on the way we see his work. So Schickel takes this subject on with forthrightness. He is good at giving the politics as well as the art context, and is very fair about making sure that hypocrites of all political flavors share the glory of that title. Reminding us that along with the romanticism of communist party membership or the seriousness of admirable social ideas in the economically strained early 1930s, came the responsibility for support of Stalin's despotism, which could be seen with equally critical eyes.

In fact he makes this the lead of his story - the frame through which we look at a complex man. It's also a smart choice because he goes right for the conflict as Kazan did. Kazan looked at the way strong love and strong ideals - influence ordinary lives. Schickel does the same with Kazan.
Kazan did, in fact, express regret for this act in his autobiography:

I thought what a terrible thing I had done; not the political aspect of it, because maybe that was correct; bit it didn't matter now, correct or not; all that mattered was the human side of the thing;...I felt no political cause was worth hurting any other human for. What good deeds were stimulated by what I'd done? What villains exposed? How is the world better for what I did? It had just been a game of power and influence, and I'd been taken in and twisted from my true self.

That passage could really be a monologue out of one of Kazan's films. Despite the fact that I feel strongly that Kazan's act was wrong because of what I know now about the HUAC and what I feel it did to the cause of free speech and free political assembly in America, Kazan does get to the heart of the matter here. If politics is not ultimately about making the lives of people better, it has no use at all. Kazan knows that his act both caused harm to people and did no good. This is deep self-probing - honest and probably painful - and is worth more than a facile pro forma apology any day. And as Warren Beaty said, when defending Kazan in 1999

I don't want to be reductive about his politics. Although you and I might feel he made a mistake, neither you nor I was around in that period. And although you and I might think we would not have made that mistake, we didn't have to make that choice.
This is a marvelously insightful and sensitive statement and it is not surprising it came from an actor because it is so descriptive of what it means to really get inside someone's skin and walk around in it. It is the way you have to contemplate the act of a person before you can play him.

In any event, it is this controversy which forms the frame of this dramatic and swiftly paced biography of Kazan by Richard Schickel. He summarizes the context of Kazan's formative years among the artists - particularly of The Group Theater - superbly. These are artists whose stories I could eat with a tablespoon, I just can't get enough of them, but he wisely gives us just enough to understand what role Kazan played and how he was influenced. Schickel is deft with summarizing the essence of things. I'll leave you with this nugget on Kazan's working method as a director:

Direction was not "what the Group director seem to think it is, a matter of coaching actors. It is turning psychological events into behavior, inner events into visible, external patterns of life on stage."


Anonymous said...

Ted - awesome thoughts here. Thank you!!

When I saw Amy Madigan, of all people, sitting down staunchly at the Awards ceremony and GLOWERING up at the doddering Elia Kazan up onstage, steadfastly refusing to clap for him, I thought, "Wow. Now THAT'S a privileged ignorant woman. Only privilege can behave that self-righteously. How nice it must be, Amy ... to be so certain you would NEVER act in that way. And also how nice it must be to never have been tested."

Besides: what about the work itself? kazan's work?

Does the work hold up?

Plenty of artists I love have held what I consider to be reprehensible views (to me, I mean - they might be marvelous ideals to others). But what does the work say? Kazan's work needs no apology.

Anyhoo - back on track.

Richard Schickel also wrote a critical study of Cary Grant's acting - which is one of my favorite pieces of film analysis ever written. it's a full book - truly WONDERFUL stuff, and he gets (I think) to the heart of the Cary Grant thing. (Which is surprisingly difficult ... Only a couple of people have written about him well, I think - Alistair Cooke, Pauline Kael ... and Richard Schickel)

Great stuff - I've been very eager to read the Kazan biography. I'll get to it someday!!

Ted said...

Thanks, sheila! Yes, truly, it is so easy to say "I would never," but that's a pretty limited view for an actor. And yes - the work is it. A cynic would say that set the bar too high for himself because he really is among a handful of american aritsts who lived out his ideals for a time. If he'd been a hack, would anyone have cared? It wouldn't have been a romantic story that they'd been "personally betrayed" by Kazan and so Hollywood would never have told that story.