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The Nation | ELIA KAZAN / 1909 -- 2003

An Acclaimed Director of Intensity and Realism

Stage and screen triumphs were eclipsed by his testimony against colleagues in the blacklist era.

September 29, 2003|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

Elia Kazan, one of the giants of modern American stage and film who was admired by many for his artistic directing and reviled by others for his testimony during the Hollywood blacklist era, died Sunday. He was 94.

Kazan, who had outlived most of his friends and enemies, died of natural causes at his home in New York City.

Kazan brought a moody and electrifying realism to theater and film that helped define a quintessentially American approach to drama. As critic David Thomson put it, Kazan was "a fascinating 20th century American. Few native directors made films that so persistently dealt with American problems and subjects or were so absorbed in the American regard for sincere intensity of performance."

After spending time as an actor in the fabled left-wing Group Theater of the 1930s, Kazan emerged as one of the most celebrated figures of 1940s and '50s Broadway and Hollywood. He directed the original stage productions of such trailblazing plays as Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," which ushered in an era of socially conscious drama and emotional realism in acting. In film, he won two Oscars, for "Gentleman's Agreement" in 1948 and "On the Waterfront" in 1955, and helped shape the film careers of a variety of acting legends, including Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty and Robert De Niro.

"Elia Kazan was my first teacher in movies, an indispensable mentor for me; inspiring, generous, unpretentious, preeminent in both the legitimate theater and the movies during a chaotic clash of culture and politics in America," Beatty told The Times on Sunday. "He loved his family, his colleagues, his work and his country. I am blessed to have had him as a friend."

Richard Schickel, a film historian and critic who is writing a book about Kazan, called him "the most significant player in bringing out a new style of acting in the movies."

But for all of Kazan's achievements, he lived the last decades of his life as a man whose artistry had been overshadowed by his politics. Many in Hollywood never forgave Kazan for his performance on April 10, 1952, the day he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), informing on eight of his old friends from the Group Theater, including playwright Clifford Odets and actress Paula Strasberg who, along with Kazan, had once been members of the Communist Party.

The director's testimony, and his adamant refusal to apologize afterward, provoked a whirlwind of protest on the left that reverberated for the rest of his life. In 1999, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' decision to give Kazan an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement was met by noisy denunciations from aging blacklisted writers as well as younger liberal activists who believed Kazan's career-saving HUAC testimony had betrayed the socially conscious ideals of many of his own films.

The war of words spread from Hollywood to newspaper op-ed pages across the country. One of Kazan's most outspoken foes, blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky, set the tone by quipping: "I'll be watching [the Oscars] hoping someone shoots him. It would no doubt be a thrill in an otherwise dull evening." Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. defended Kazan, calling the criticism "an orgy of self-righteous frenzy" and saying that "if the occasion calls for apologies, let Mr. Kazan's denouncers apologize for the aid and comfort they gave to Stalinism."

Rip Torn, an Emmy Award-winning actor who made his Broadway debut as an understudy to Ben Gazzara in Kazan's production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," said Kazan was in a tragic, no-win situation. "I'm not excusing what he did, but what happened was a tragedy for Elia and for America," Torn said at the time of the Oscar controversy. "I've always thought of Elia as Galileo -- a man forced to recant by powers bigger than any of us."

In uncertain health at the time, Kazan gave a brief speech when accepting his Oscar, but made no public response to his detractors. Years earlier, he had justified his actions to playwright Miller by saying, "I'd hated the Communists for many years and I didn't feel right about giving up my career to defend them." As for the friends he informed on, he told Miller, "they had already been named or soon would be" by someone else.

But Kazan was always torn by his actions. In the book "Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films," which compiled a series of interviews he did with writer-director Jeff Young, Kazan said: "Anybody who informs on other people is doing something disturbing and disgusting. It doesn't sit well on anyone's conscience.... I knew a lot of guys would turn against me."

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