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Monday, November 17, 2003

Arts & Letters

An Express Train Named Desire

Some Notes on the Life, Art, and Many Myths of Elia Kazan




In the last issue of this Website, I wrote a piece called “Shoulders” (see “Shoulders,” greekworks.com, October 1), in which I eulogized Elia Kazan, along with Elias Petropoulos and Edward Said. More accurately, as opposed to Petropoulos and Said, I referred to Kazan as a giant who was, “paradoxically,” small: Kazan was not so much a god with feet of clay as a human being with a heart of stone. While I said in that article that I would not speak ill of the dead, I also said that dead and living alike deserve honesty and honorable reflection. I hope that what follows is taken exactly as what it is: an honest attempt on my part to reflect honorably on a Greek American whose unusually divisive actions affected — even if only minimally or tangentially — the subsequent history of the United States.

The article below was written roughly four and a half years ago, and was commissioned by Odyssey magazine. The occasion was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s award to Elia Kazan of a special Oscar for “lifetime achievement.” Before accepting to write about the affair, however, I made sure the magazine was clear on what I thought about the Academy’s decision, and about Kazan. Not that they didn’t know already, as I had worked at Odyssey when the magazine first started, and my opinion of Kazan — both moral and artistic — was common knowledge. Nevertheless, I was asked to write the article, and I agreed to do so. I should add that I was still head of the Foundation for Hellenic Culture in New York at the time, and maybe Odyssey simply assumed that, as an “official” (and public) spokesman for Greek culture, my diplomatic discretion would override any critical valor I might possess. Who knows?

Almost predictably, the article was “killed” — more accurately, suppressed. Indeed, in what remains the greatest honor ever paid to me by anybody (although this was obviously not the intention), Odyssey replaced my piece by one commissioned from Andrew Sarris. I’ve always considered Sarris to be America’s greatest film critic. Furthermore, for a (very) long time, he was, quite literally, the lodestar in my personal, and life-long, navigation through cinema, the man whose critical acuity and intellectual commitment made me decide to dedicate the greatest part of my waking hours during the last 35-plus years to movies. He was also my teacher at Columbia (I actually went to Columbia because he taught there). The fact is that I can still remember that day in 1968, in a bookshop (no longer there) on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, when I picked up a copy of The American Cinema, started reading it, and, of course, ended up buying it. No other book has ever changed my life so thoroughly.

Consequently, to find Andrew Sarris as my critical “substitute” — and Odyssey’s editorial “fallback” position — was so awesome (and ridiculous) a situation, and so ineffable an honor, that I laughed when I saw Sarris’s appreciation of Kazan in the magazine. As I had used Sarris’s famous disesteem as the critical basis for my own esthetic judgment of Kazan, I’m sure Odyssey thought it was very clever in managing to get Sarris as my “replacement.” In the event, they were too clever by half.

Sarris has been revising his judgments in The American Cinema — most famously on Billy Wilder — almost from the time the book was published. Is there any critic, after all, who wants to be mindlessly saddled with every opinion, analysis, and conclusion (s)he made well over three decades earlier? What makes Sarris a critic of genius, in fact, is precisely how astute, and accurate, he was back in 1968; as such, none of his reconsiderations add up to any substantive intellectual reorientation of (or even difference with) his original critical framework. Which is why The American Cinema can be read today with almost as much benefit as it provided when first published.

Specifically, Sarris wrote in Odyssey that while his original esthetic estimation of Kazan “was skeptical in the extreme,” he now felt that he had “grossly underestimated [Kazan’s] oeuvre” and that “[t]ime has been kinder to Kazan’s work than I would have suspected 30 years ago.” When it comes down to the actual nature of his initial “gross underestimation,” however, Sarris provides only two specific examples: Kazan’s “quieter films” (such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Pinky, Panic in the Streets, and Wild River), on the one hand, and, on the other, the need to reconsider “all the marvelous female performances in Kazan’s films.” But this is pretty paltry critical revisionism (and self-evidently sensible); in reality, it is fundamentally indistinguishable from Sarris’s original perspective on Kazan’s work. As Sarris himself wrote in Odyssey, he had acknowledged Kazan’s “brilliance with actors” even in 1968.

In re-reading Sarris’s piece now, what strikes me is our critical agreement (down to the matter of the performances Kazan managed to elicit from his female actors). More important, I concur with Sarris’s inevitably brilliant insight that “Kazan’s rise to the top could not have come without a certain degree of crisis about his own identity, which he sought to resolve through a series of artistically contrived self-examinations.” Sarris then describes a crucial process in Kazan’s biography (and art): “The problems of self-discovery multiply the more one finds himself, as Kazan did, very much in the public eye. This meant that Kazan’s own insights into his own character could be challenged by contrasting and even contradictory opinions of other observers on who the ‘true’ Kazan ‘really’ was. When one considers all the political and aesthetic controversies raging around him through most of his adult life, one is not surprised that Citizen Kazan, like Citizen Kane before him, became a shadowy figure of ultimately unfathomable depths and unresolved ambiguities.” In the end, Sarris and I disagree solely on the political — and, inescapably, moral — issues involved, which is unsurprising as I am a man of the left and Sarris has always proclaimed himself (if I can be forgiven the oxymoron) a ferocious centrist. In any case, I hope that everybody goes to www.odyssey.gr to read his article (“Kazan’s Cold War,” March/April 1999). As for my own piece, I’ve left everything, including the title (above), precisely as it was when submitted to Odyssey, with the exception of two very minor corrections: one grammatical, the other typographical.

One last point, regarding the ethics of journalism. Both Andrew Sarris and I try to grapple with Kazan’s identity as a Greek American. For reasons I have never fully understood, we Greek Americans defend our “own” with hermetic hysteria — indeed, and sadly, with a more than occasional ethical violence comparable only to Mafia-like omertà. Which is a reason why the history of Greek America is, to an undeniable degree, the history of the community media’s craven submission to power (in any form, Greek and American alike) and, even worse, to their own self-censorship, which has, as a result, consistently translated into a cavalier (but more or less absolute) disregard for any notions of principled journalism. In the end, the fact that a Greek American publication suppressed a Greek American’s critical view, commissioned by the publication itself, of a Greek American “icon” speaks volumes about the truly pathetic condition in which we all find ourselves…and — just in case anybody wants to know — no, I never did get a kill fee.

***

I think the reason why I joined the Communist Party and turned against everybody was born at Williams [College]. I had this antagonism to privilege, to good looks, to America, to WASPs.
— Elia Kazan

[Kazan] was the most seductive man I had ever met….Once he talked eloquently to me of wanting to play Richard III, knowing the evil uses of charm. He would have made a fascinating Iago.
— Walter Bernstein, blacklisted screenwriter

About Kazan…if I was on a desert island with him, I’d be afraid to fall asleep because he’d probably eat me for breakfast.
— Abraham Polonsky, blacklisted director

Once again, as so often in the past, Hollywood’s liberal establishment — and the mediacracy that feeds into and off of it — got it thoroughly and irredeemably wrong. The issue? Whether or not Elia Kazan “deserved” the Motion Picture Academy’s Oscar for lifetime achievement. The argument? That in honoring Kazan, the Academy was not defending or validating his behavior 47 years ago before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (or HUAC, as its initials were incorrectly reassembled), but “simply” acknowledging his contribution to the art of the cinema.

Ars longa, vita brevis, and all that sort of thing. Except that the problem is that if anyone actually bothers to examine Kazan’s ostensible “lifetime achievement” in film, one comes up with a decidedly problematic contribution — marginally important at best, fundamentally insignificant at worst — which cannot, under any critical circumstances, withstand the gaze of sober and objective scrutiny.

Viva Kazan?
The fact of the matter is that, over 30 years later, nobody has summed up Kazan’s career as tersely and cuttingly as his fellow Greek American, Andrew Sarris. In the strategically provocative chapter entitled, “Less Than Meets the Eye,” in The American Cinema, the book that an entire generation of film scholars consider the Bible (or at least the Kabbalah) of American film studies, Sarris wrote that, “For the most part…Kazan intends to ignore his limitations rather than transcend them.” Although written in 1968, when Kazan had still not effectively retired from filmmaking, this assessment remains the most accurate analysis of his film career as a whole.

Ironically, for the man who became the icon of the cultural anticommunist par excellence, Kazan’s singular presence in the American cinema is surely that of the most unbending social realist of his generation. (At the Oscar ceremonies, Martin Scorsese tried to sanitize Kazan by extolling him as a “poetic realist.”) Kazan might have fingered his Group Theatre comrades to HUAC, but from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1945 to America, America almost 20 years later, his filmography reads like a continuing variation on the persistent esthetic mode of social realism. (It should be remembered that Kazan first burst upon America’s cultural consciousness in the now mythical Group Theatre production of Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty as the character who, at the end of the play, urges his fellow proletarians — and, of course, the audience — to resist class oppression with the famous closing line of “Strike! Strike! Strike!”)

In the event, when one compares him to, for example, Billy Wilder on the one hand and Douglas Sirk on the other — just to name two other quintessentially “Fifties” directors (who also happened to be immigrants) — one immediately understands the degree to which Kazan’s influence on American movies, or future filmmakers, was virtually nil. The truth is, as Andrew Sarris once again pointed out 30 years ago, that the only “incontestable” gift Kazan had was his “brilliance with actors.”

It was Kazan, after all, who not only famously launched the film careers of Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Warren Beatty (as well as Carroll Baker and Lee Remick), but also arguably got the finest performances of their careers from Eva Marie Saint and Natalie Wood. Kazan was nothing if not an actor’s director. But film is not theater — and, in film, Kazan’s influence was once marginal, and in the intervening years became nonexistent.

Sharing the pain
So why has Hollywood honored Elia Kazan? To put it simply, bad faith, as we used to say in the Sartrean Sixties. Hollywood has always been a place, and a state of mind, where false consciousness and bad conscience blend easily into a brain-numbing cocktail. Now in the Clintonite Nineties, it has so degenerated into the most undisguised and uninhibited solipsism that the very notion of authenticity is as quaint as a Mack Sennett two-reeler.

In the eyes of Hollywood today, we are all empowered, all of us children of God and of America, black and white, rich and poor, men and women, immigrant and native, left and right. We are all victims and victimizers, enablers and enabled, harassers and harassed, informers and informed upon. Good and evil are no longer pure or simple concepts but the ever slippery constructs of language, which, as the first pomo president has made abundantly clear in his own grotesque reconstitution of the public and private, always eludes our grasp and our capacity for clear definition.

And so, Elia Kazan has “paid the price” (although no one can tell us what that is exactly). The time has come to “share his pain,” enfold him in our amnesiac embrace, and “move forward” (to what place has also not been made clear). Betrayal, treachery, broken lives, families and friendships destroyed, wives and husbands torn apart, an entire society morally ravaged and set to humiliating and ultimately devouring itself — that was all part of the bad old days, a nightmare really. A Cold War or something. Whatever.

Naming names
Which brings us back to Elia Kazan and his “lifetime achievement.” Curious phrase, that. And provocative. Is the sum total of a man’s or a woman’s “achievements” a mere laundry list of worldly success? Is Alexander the Great or Napoleon the only paradigms we have of “lifetime achievement”? Most people would say no, of course. And for the same reason, since most of us believe in some unifying coherence beyond ourselves. It is a travesty, in every and any conceivable sense of the phrase, “lifetime achievement,” to honor a man who became synonymous with the most pathetic and abject self-abasement and an utterly unheroic kind of betrayal. Whether one takes the left or the right lane, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, in 1999 as in 1952.

And now, just to set the record straight. First, the eight names Kazan named to HUAC on April 10, 1952, were all former comrades and, more to the point, colleagues (Odets among them) who might have been a lot of things — stupid, naive, gullible, or even committed communists — but definitely not agents, spies, or fifth columnists. They were simply men and women who were persecuted, not for anything they did but for what they believed — or, more accurately, for what others believed they believed.

Second, as a child of the Sixties, I can attest to the fact that one could be at the same time a person of the left (even of the extreme left) and a dedicated opponent (not to say fanatic enemy) of the Soviet Union.

Third — and this is the most important point of all — there is general agreement by most witnesses at the time, as well as by historians of the period, that Kazan could have been, if he had wanted to, a genuine hero, the man who rallied America’s artists and intellectuals to break the back of HUAC. I quote from Victor Navasky’s authoritative study of the Hollywood blacklist, Naming Names:

Probably no single individual could have broken the blacklist in April 1952 and yet no person was in a better strategic position to try than Kazan, by virtue of his prestige and economic invulnerability, to mount a symbolic campaign against it, and by his example inspire hundreds of fence sitters to come over to the opposition.

Instead, Kazan not only betrayed his colleagues, but, in a gratuitous act of truly pathological self-humiliation (and a frightening American echo of the communist show trials), added an annotated appendix to his testimony in which he “explained” why the “message” of every play or film he had ever directed was uninfected by the communist virus or actually virulently anticommunist. And then, to top it all off, he took out an ad in the New York Times two days later exhorting others to collaborate with HUAC just as he had done, so as “to protect ourselves from a dangerous and alien conspiracy and still keep the free, open, healthy way of life that gives us self-respect”!

America, America
Finally, as a Greek American writing about another Greek American in a magazine read largely by Greek Americans, I must bring up a detail that has been gnawing at me since I first delved into this tale over a quarter of a century ago. Kazan himself has repeatedly denied it, but for the last 47 years a story has circulated persistently regarding his decision to name names.

Victor Navasky quotes Kermit Bloomgarden, the producer of the original Death of a Salesman (directed by Kazan), as telling him that it was Spyros Skouras who pressured Kazan to testify before HUAC, since Kazan had just finished Viva Zapata for Twentieth Century Fox — of which Skouras was then the head — and Skouras was scared that HUAC would seize upon the release of this “revolutionary” film as prima facie evidence of the subversiveness of everyone connected with it.

True? False? Intriguing, at the very least. A Greek American “success story” counsels another Greek American “success story” to engage in an otherwise unthinkable act of self-humiliation so that neither will be thought of as “un-American” — and therefore endanger their success. Maybe, maybe not. One thing is certain, however. Ambition wedded to insecurity born of immigrant displacement can be a tragic and, in the end, pitiful combination. What thus begins as a yearning for personal validation and social transcendence ends up as an engine of unremitting and uncontrollable desire, devastating everything in its path. America, America, indeed.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of greekworks.com.
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