DocuMondays – Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey

Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey (1995, dir. Richard Shickel)

Narrated by Eli Wallach
The career of Elia Kazan is one of the most impressive of any American filmmaker, but also tainted by involvement in the McCarthy hearings and much controversy caused by his work. Even Kazan’s detractors find it hard to discount the amazing body of work he produced though. Kazan is a real story of an immigrant coming this country and making their way, while never compromising their personal convictions.
Kazan was born in 1909 to Greek immigrants in Turkey, who emigrated to the United States in 1913. The documentary doesn’t spend much time talking about Kazan’s childhood, instead jumping to his career as an actor and director of the stage in New York. Kazan was part of communal theater group who focused on work of social importance. Melodrama was discarded in favor of tackling leftist issues, particularly those related to the working class. These techniques and themes would carry over into Kazan’s film work years later. Once he was picked up as a mainstream Broadway director, Kazan’s star really shone, particularly when he won a Tony for the original production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Because of Kazan’s deep friendship with Tennessee Williams he was a natural to bring A Streetcar Named Desire to the screen. In the documentary, Kazan relates a tale of how Williams had a bit of a crush on Marlon Brando, causing him not to worry all that much when critics focused on Stanley Kowalski so much, and not the larger conflict between Stanley and Blanche for Stella. This film and many others had a trademark jazz score and very inventive camera work that reflected his protagonists’ dementia. Kazan was also gifted at discovering great talents. Among his finds were Marlon Brando, James Dean, Karl Malden, Lee Remick, and Andy Griffith. Kazan explains his method of getting to know an actor by meeting the people important in their lives, spending time with them, going out to dinner with them, and basically figuring out who they are a person because that is what they are going to bring to their performance.
The part of Kazan’s career that causes the most dissonance for people was his involvement in the HUAC proceedings. Kazan named names of fellow actor and performers who had been members of the Communist Party with him. As a result many of them were blacklisted and unable to find work for years. This stood out as strange as Kazan was never anything but up front about his own leftist beliefs. Years later he stated his reason being that he was tired of the socialist movement in America hiding, and decided it was now or never for them to come out, even if it was against their will. He didn’t do this believing there would be long term harm, but that America would see that socialists weren’t scary bogey men. While aiding Joseph McCarthy and his communist witch hunt may have not been the best idea, it is understandable in a way.
Kazan’s film career ended officially in 1976, but in reality his light had dimmed about a decade earlier. Hollywood became focused on younger, iconoclastic directors of the late 60s, and the director is very understanding of this. He states that it is a natural cycle of the filmmaking art to look for freshness and he had made the statements he wanted to make. This is a great documentary that takes its story straight from the subject’s mouth and will get you excited about seeing the masterpieces of Elia Kazan.

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