"Though we may recall the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower, we may never recover it..."
With these words, imperfectly remembered, I met Elia Kazan on a summer afternoon when I was seventeen. I was, I believed, in love for the first time. I came back from walking the fields of the small English town where I lived to find Natalie Woodall the essence of a young girl and, as I think of it now, very like the woman I later marriedquiveringly emerging from the television in Splendor in the Grass. There was moreNatalie Wood drowning with desire in the lake, which I always think of, sadly, when people speak of her death by drowning. And there was Natalie Wood screaming at her mother that she was still "a good little, good little, good little girl" with such passionate intensity that you thought her soul might split.
I cannot forget Natalie Wood, frantic in the fever of young love, or the nurse carrying her soaked red dress away like the remnant of her purity and sanity. I cannot forget Elia Kazan's immigrant-hero in America, America saying, "Come on, you. People are waiting. People waiting" after struggling under impossible odds to make it to America. I cannot forget the loads he carried on his back and the man he was forced to kill to stay alive long enough to get out, to save his family. I cannot forget Eli Wallach snaking his way into Carroll Baker's infantile affections and her perpetually scanty nighty in Baby-Doll. I can't forget Blanche DuBois, cowering in fear as Stanley Kowalski explains the finer points of the Napoleonic code in A Streetcar Named Desire or her walking off to the insane asylum where she will end her days. And no one forgets Stanley Kowalski, brawling, yelling, stumbling and abandoned, screaming for Stella.
There may have been nothing extraordinary about these moments. But as I encountered them over time, I knew I had never seen anything like them. And from the first of them, I honestly never looked at film the same way again. I remember a critic describing Splendor in that languid English way as "the American classic, relentlessly directed by Elia Kazan." It had never occurred to me that someone might direct a film relentlessly, and the jab at Kazan's intensity misses what he did in his films. He captured, somehow, pieces of humanity so real, in such a deftly hypnotic way, that they go beyond moments of theater and become things that burrow into your consciousness, as if they were true pieces of your world. What he did is extract from a story an essence of truth so concentrated that you change from an audience member watching a drama to a witness of one of the atoms of life being cracked open in front of your eyes.
He did this, over and over, in as silly a thing as a Hollywood movie, in a time as silly as, at least for part of his career and ignominiously so, the communist witch-hunt era. He unapologetically named names of communists, in a country his parents chose as immigrants escaping from poverty and turmoil in their native Turkey, and in his new country's very silly movie capital of Hollywood.
Perhaps because Kazan is one of the greatest film-artists of all time, or simply someone who has a gift for throwing up flashes of humanity in unforgettable ways or, perhaps, someone who cared that what he showed in his films could instruct us on the passions, both good and evil, that either uplift or destroy what is human about us, his films have become an odd sort of companion to my life. He has done so many things with such recognizable brilliance that I could stumble on a film in the middle of the night on a static-ridden TV and know it was one of his, whether I'd ever heard of it or not. Because he made a country of his films, a real and bewitching landscape of characters and stories, and because he almost invariably, in the space of any three-minute scene you might happen upon managed to find something which so tipped the world into unique and unmistakable light, he became a "friend" to me, the way an artist whom you imagine you know through his work becomes a friend.
They followed one after the other, as I came upon his films, almost by accident. In A Face In The Crowd, he gave us a portrait of a demagogue who almost steals a nation, in such a way that you know it's happened more than once. And he gives us that facethe smiling, cheerful, aw shucks down-home liar we can recognize, if we care to, in political hopeful after political hopeful in every party. In Panic In The Streets, he gives us a world where an epidemic is lurking somewhere, hidden in back corners, communicating, we fear, from one person to the next in secret and where an ordinary man walks alone to stop it before it breaks open and kills half the country. He gives us the image of this quiet bravery, this man carefully burning his clothes in his garage before he goes inside to his wife, who does not know what he's battling. He gives a picture of how hatred and hysteria spread as diseases do. In On The Waterfront, he gave us a guy with a "one-way ticket to Palookaville," a man everyone counted out and who proved that whether you are the smartest, or the best, or the bravest, it doesn't matter if you at least once in your life stand up for who you are. In Wild River, he gave us human frailty, the frailty of love in the midst of change and the power of love to be greater than the greatest worldly forces. In Streetcar, he gave us greater frailty, the frailty of being human at all, of being ridden with wrongs and vulnerable to brutality, and he gave us a picture of hope flickering in the saddest of lives, unless snuffed out by that brutality. In Streetcar and in East of Eden, he gave us what it is to want love and what it means when someone is cast away without it. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, he gave us the power of a child's love to redeem. In America, America, he gave us what it is to dream and what it means to be willing to die for those who depend on you or, all the better, to live for them, to see them safe. In Splendor, he gave us love and what can happen if it's denied. In Baby Doll, he gave us casual prejudice and greed and how its own absurdity can sometimes defeat it. In Gentleman's Agreement, he gave us more pernicious prejudice, anti-semitism and a man who had to oppose it, whatever the cost to himself.
If you don't know Kazan's films, it's remarkable to think of the actors he worked with, some of whom he helped to make part of the American landscape: James Dean, Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Gregory Pecklater, Robert DeNiro and Jack Nicholson. He was one of the original members of the Group Theater and a co-founder of the Actors Studio, whose other members, along with Kazan (such as Marlon Brando), changed American theater and film forever and made it dominant in the second half of the last century. Aside from his films, he directed the stage productions of Streetcar, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Death of A Salesman and All My Sons, among many others.
Kazan's work has become an inextricable part of American iconography. His life, sadly, became part of our iconography when he testified in the McCarthy hearings and earned the hatred of many by naming names of communist party members in the film industry, thereby certainly ending their careers. There are writers and directors and actors, some of whom were young children or not yet born at the time, who cannot forgive Kazan. When he received his Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, there were many stars in the audience, some not yet born when the McCarthy hearings were held, who protested silently by refusing to applaud and glaring at the stage as the frail old Kazan took it, thanked the Academy and said "Now I can just quietly slip away."
I am naive, I know, and a film-romantic, I know, but I have always found it difficult to imagine that the Kazan I imagined I knew through the humanity of his films could have been operating only out of greed, or self-preservation, or lack of principle. Kazan never acted ashamed or apologetic in any way for naming names and somehow managed to cast the indignation that was heaped on him in the light of fussy schoolboy honor-codes. At least he had the protection of the conviction that he had come to feel, as a member of the party in the Ô30s, that communists were at least in theory as destructive as Nazis because they were the opposite of democratic. Given the furor over Kazan, it's almost amusing that his actual break with the communists came when the party tried to take over artistic control of his theater company and have him direct plays according to party dictateswhich to a director of Kazan's artistic powers must have been laughableand which in some ways gives you all the insight you need to Kazan's vigorous and guiltless informing: nobody tells an artist of that stature what to do in his art.
That the Hollywood communists were not likely to be a danger to anyone seemed not to trouble him perhaps because, by the same token, their political beliefs were possibly a show-business luxury to Kazan in a country where even in the depression life had been more secure and serene than it was in his parents' homeland. And in a town like Hollywood where, possibly, communism seemed like something for bored, well-paid club-members to do about "the world beyond Sunset"like Joel McCrea's spoiled director in Sullivan's Travels, who wants to "know the common man"until he has to live like one.
Or, possibly, the same brilliant director who frightened the young girl star of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn until she cried truly bitter tears and who apologized for it later by saying, in effect, "It wasn't the nicest thing to do, but a director has to do anything to get the shot." He simply would not let anything, even principles over the fate of other peoples' careers, get in the way of making his shot. If even that much is true, it's still difficult for me to blame him. Our desire to make heroes out of artists is infantile at best, and Kazan's heroism is apparent in his films, as is his compassion, whether or not they played out simply in his life. Infantile as it is to speculate, it's difficult to say his life fell as short as his accusers saynot that many directors, judged by conduct off the set, would do even as well. He said what he said in his films and added something real, and human, to our consciousness. No amount of scorn reduces the truth of those magnificent, transforming, works.
After this strange one-sided companionship I had with Mr. Kazan, it's strange that I'd somehow forgotten that my father, who was a communist in his youth when it was a fashionable thing for a writer to be and who had to lie about it later to work, met Elia Kazan in the 1950s, I believe, when Kazan was visiting rehearsals, ironically, of the Broadway production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, his drama decrying the McCarthy witch-hunts. It's strange that I forgot this, but my father knew many people from that era, and it was easy enough for a story to get lost between the Sinatra and the Tennessee Williams, the Richard Burton and the JFK. I only remembered there was such a meeting at all when my father passed away last year and I went back to England and found among his things the picture he took of Kazan with the note on the back: "Elia Kazan and Arthur Millerrehearsal for The Crucible." It was signed "Dad" as if he'd left it for me. Stranger still, I remembered then that my father seemed to like Kazan.
I think, when someone is lost to you, whether they have passed away or just disappointed you in some way, there is a sense that they're lost forever. I think in a world where moments of truth, and love, are scarce, we should perhaps take them where we find them, whatever taint we feel might detract from them. I think the moments of truth and love that Elia Kazan has given us will never "slip away" as long as people can see and understand them. And as long as people can see and remember his films, thankfully, Elia Kazan will never slip away.