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.

Film 2010 #21 – A Face in the Crowd

A Face in the Crowd (1957, dir. Elia Kazan)

Starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau
Sheriff Andy Taylor this ain’t. If you familiarity with the acting of Andy Griffith doesn’t expand much further than The Andy Griffith Show then prepare to be shocked by this picture. Released three years prior to the television series, the role Griffith plays is that of a scoundrel, liar, womanizer, emotionally abusive drunk. The character’s profession as a television personality delivering blues-based country music and humorous monologues about his upbringing in North Carolina is remarkably similar to how Griffith made his start in show business. However, the darker aspects of the character are believed to be inspired by television and radio personalities Arthur Godfrey (who fired an employee on air in 1953, revealing his controlling personality) and Uncle Don, a child TV personality who was caught calling his audience “little bastards” on air.
The story begins with Marcia Jeffries, the niece of a radio station owner in North Arkansas who hosts a series called “A Face in the Crowd”, whose focus is finding everyman figures with dynamic personalities. She comes across Larry Rhodes, a drifter picked up for public drunkenness. Larry is a very charismatic person who pulls people in and Marcia decided to make him a regular on the station, nicknaming him Lonesome Rhodes. Lonesome rises up through a local television station in Memphis and is eventually picked by a national network in New York City. All the while, he reveals his true nature to Marcia as someone not truly as “salt of the earth” as he claims.
The film feels prophetic, but when its based on personalities and hosts of the past it reveals how cyclical the fame and media machine truly is. It is inevitable that parallels would be drawn between this film and Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and countless other politically driven svegalis who emphasize their simple roots and connection to the common man. Lonesome Rhodes is a sympathetic character at points in the film, but never an admirable one. The theatrical audience could easily be pulled in by Lonesome’s grin and “fuck you” to the Man take on his earlier career.
The film is a pretty standard cautionary tale and director Kazan knows how to use his camera to accentuate the madness that begins to overtake Lonesome. I absolutely loved a montage that shows how Lonesome’s national television series becomes a hit. It was the perfect example of how to use montage in an effective way that isn’t simply cheating on the part of a screenwriter. I also loved a sequence near the end where Lonesome is taking an elevator down to the limo waiting for him. The camera cuts between the elevator buttons lighting as he descends and simultaneous descent of his approval in the eyes of the public and his sponsors. Brilliant, classic piece of cinema.

The James Dean Trilogy – East of Eden

East of Eden (1955, dir. Elia Kazan)
Starring James Dean, Raymond Massey, Burl Ives

This month, I’ll be looking at the three core works of James Dean’s sadly short career. I didn’t see any of these films until 2007 when, while living in Washington state, I decided to check out Giant from the public library. What I discovered was the reason behind an icon. So often a pop culture figure’s work has been so far removed from our contemporary experiences that it is hard to understand exactly how they became so iconic. I have found that Dean was indeed a brilliant actor with a potential I don’t see in many others.

Dean made his starring role debut in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (based on the novel of John Steinbeck), playing the tragic loner Cal Trask. Cal is the son of Adam, a farmer and brother to Aron. Throughout his life, Cal has been overshadowed by Aron’s accomplishments and looked at as the black sheep of the family. The mother mysteriously disappeared when the boys were children and Cal remembers little of her. The story is a reworking of the Cain and Abel story and mixes it with the gorgeous landscape of Salinas and Monterey, California.

The filmmaking at work here is a unique artifact of its time. Kazan is a deft director who is responsible for such masterpieces as On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. And it was Kazan’s keen eye who discovered James Dean as he was performing on Broadway. Dean was a major proponent of method acting, a technique that transitioned from the more classical theatrical style of acting into a more psychological and physically interpretive method. Method acting bridges a sort of gap between acting and dance. This is seen in the way Dean almost spasms through his performance, he twists and contorts his body in unison with the psychological torment. The character of Cal is stunted mentally and Dean chooses to express that through his movement. Cal is constantly jamming his hands into his pockets, kicking at the dirt nervously, just like an awkward adolescent.

Dean was reportedly very uncooperative on set, and Kazan admitted he would encourage this by antagonizing the actor. Kazan believed that keeping Dean in such a mentally upset state would, in turn, enhance the anger and frustration of Cal on the screen. Dean’s co-star, Julie Harris is credited with truly enhancing the performance by adjusting her own to become more low-key and further highlight the distinction of what Dean was doing. For a first major film performance, Dean delivers in an astonishing way. Method acting was a new and exciting development in theater and its no wonder audiences were entranced with Dean.

Coming up next: I take a look at the film that made Dean an icon, Rebel Without A Cause.