The Director Who Named Names

Reconsidering the legacy of Elia Kazan

James Kavallines, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress
James Kavallines, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress


In 1952, when Elia Kazan gave the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) the names of eight actors who had been members with him of a Communist Party unit in the Group Theatre, he committed an act that would cloud his reputation for the rest of his life. Condemnation of Kazan was both bitter and long-lived. Two days after his appearance, he published an ad in The New York Times defending his position and urging other liberals to “speak out” as he had. When Kazan’s On the Waterfront opened two years later, those whose careers had been destroyed by their refusal to cooperate with HUAC surely heard the director’s unrepentant voice in Terry Malloy’s defiant cry to the mobbed-up union boss he has exposed: “And I’m glad what I done to you, ya hear that?”

Blacklist victims privately criticized On the Waterfront as a disingenuous attempt to justify informing, but there were no public complaints when the movie swept the Academy Awards in 1955, winning eight Oscars, including one for Kazan as best director. In 1999, however, after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it was awarding Kazan an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, a full-page ad in Daily Variety, signed by such prominent actors as Sean Penn and Edward Asner, deplored the academy’s decision. On the night of the ceremony, hundreds of demonstrators protested outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Inside, some notable names sat out the traditional standing ovation for lifetime achievement honorees. Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw didn’t stand but did clap; Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, and Nick Nolte remained in their seats, grimly keeping their hands in their laps.

Friends called me before and after the Oscar telecast to see if I, too, was appalled by Kazan’s award. In my history of the Group Theatre, Real Life Drama, I had painted an unsympathetic picture of him as a driven young man; my brief summary of events following the Group’s demise characterized his behavior in 1952 as “anticommunist liberalism at its most self-righteous and self-serving.” But I wasn’t writing about Kazan the artist. “They’re giving him the award for being a great director, not a great human being,” was my standard response when people expressed surprise at my lack of outrage.

Actually, I’d come to realize in the years since Real Life Drama was published that the great director’s work could not be separated from the experiences and convictions of the not-so-great human being. The montage of Kazan’s films at the Oscars, introduced by a visibly uncomfortable Robert De Niro and a sternly determined Martin Scorsese, amply confirmed De Niro’s description of him as “a man whose work is vitally important in the history of American film.” On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and East of Eden are iconic movies, but they’re also intensely personal statements. Streetcar captures Kazan’s feelings about his conflicted first marriage in its depiction of a man and a woman who have diametrically opposed philosophies of life, vehemently reject the other’s perspective, and yet are fatally attracted. Waterfront is indeed a defense of informing; it shows a man being true to himself by rejecting the values of his community, as Kazan had done. East of Eden rips the façade off a seemingly proper American family and boils with Kazan’s outraged belief that comfortable, black-and-white morality is a sham and a lie.

Kazan’s intensely personal engagement with his films is evident in his 1988 autobiography, A Life, one of the most gleefully unflattering self-portraits ever written. Taking Rousseau’s Confessions as his model, Kazan shares his ugliest emotions and seamiest actions; he seems positively pleased to outdo his detractors in describing his compulsive womanizing, competitiveness, and vindictiveness. The passages about his first wife, Molly Day Thacher, are painful to read, seething with love and fury intimately intermingled. His effort to live up to her rigid, puritanical, and unrealistic standards, Kazan asserts, had made him unhappy and deceitful. His analyses of friends and colleagues are equally disturbing: shrewd, but almost entirely devoid of charity. About his cooperation with HUAC he wrote, “I did [it] out of my true self. Everything before was seventeen years of posturing.” Moreover, “The only genuinely good and original films I’ve made, I made after my testimony.” This was the guy that blacklist victims really hated.

I didn’t much like him either when I read A Life, published while I was researching Real Life Drama. Since Kazan declined to be interviewed for my book, I had to take his jaundiced assessment of his Group years—the older members condescended to him; he resented it—more or less at face value. I passed quick judgment on his HUAC appearance before moving on to the more agreeable subject of the Group Theatre’s legacy. It was a relief that Kazan’s films were beyond my book’s scope; I had no desire to explore the fact that works I admired had been created by someone who by his own account was a miserable (in both senses of the word) human being. Kazan’s political justification for testifying, that “secrecy serves the Communists,” struck me as specious. Arthur Miller, a once-close friend estranged by Kazan’s decision to give names, said it best: “[T]he public exposure of a bunch of actors who had not been politically connected for years would never push one Red Chinaman out of the Forbidden City or a single Russian out of Warsaw or Budapest.”

Kazan’s brilliant direction of Miller’s Death of a Salesman in 1949, two years after his equally revelatory work on the Broadway production of Streetcar, had made him the most sought-after director in the American theater. Much of the anger about his HUAC testimony stemmed from the perception that by refusing to cooperate, he would not have put his livelihood at stake. Because the blacklist never had much effect on Broadway, Kazan could have defied the committee and continued to direct plays, remaining successful and well paid without selling out his former comrades. Nearly half a century later, the demonstrators at the Academy Awards were making this same argument. “He didn’t need to have talked,” said one. “Kazan could have worked.”

But not in Hollywood. By 1952, he’d directed a string of impressive movies notable for their engagement with contemporary social issues, including the racial drama Pinky and an exposé of anti-Semitism, Gentleman’s Agreement. And though the film version of Streetcar had given Kazan enough clout to make a movie about the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, something he had long wanted to do, the president of 20th Century–Fox made it clear to Kazan that Viva Zapata! would not be released if he failed to satisfy HUAC; his movie career would be over.

Theater wasn’t enough for him anymore. Zapata, with a script written by John Steinbeck but initiated and developed by Kazan, was the kind of work he wanted to do now. He continued to direct on Broadway through the 1950s. He also played an instrumental role in the development of a distinctively American acting style as co-founder of the Actors Studio. But Streetcar had shown Kazan that the kind of deep, emotionally raw performances the Actors Studio fostered could be even more electrifying in a movie. He was no longer content to simply serve a playwright’s vision. “I put myself in the author’s shoes,” he said later of his stage work. “I was many men, but none of them was myself.”

The uncomfortable fact about Kazan’s HUAC testimony is that it liberated him to be himself—at least in film. His relationship to the theater echoed his marriage with Thacher: genuine devotion curdled by the furious sense that making it work required denying his instincts. Kazan did have to compromise when dealing with movie executives, but that was business, and he didn’t compromise much. His four films following the back-to-back successes of On the Waterfront and East of Eden put him squarely in the forefront of the struggle to make American cinema more honest and adult.

They were very different in tone and content: Baby Doll was a gothic comedy, A Face in the Crowd a prescient portrait of media-fueled political demagoguery, Wild River a provocative reconsideration of New Deal social engineering, Splendor in the Grass a romantic melodrama. But all four had a forthright sexuality that alarmed the industry’s censorship board. In his correspondence with his studio bosses, Kazan drew a firm line: he would negotiate over trims to get the required Production Code Administration’s seal of approval, but he would not cut material he deemed essential to the story or crucial to understanding the characters, nor would he make concessions to appease pressure groups such as the National Legion of Decency. If the studio violated his contract by editing his films without his consent, he would sue.

When I read that correspondence, published in 2014 as The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan, another piece of the puzzle that was Elia Kazan fell into place. Telling particular truths about human experience, Kazan fiercely maintained, was more important than deferring to generalized pieties, be they a motion picture code, communist dogma, religious commandments—or the liberal tenet that civil rights was the bedrock of democracy. Kazan did what HUAC wanted because his career mattered more to him than standing up for a principle. He didn’t really believe in principles.

The bleak worldview that underpinned Kazan’s decision to testify had its fullest expression in America America, his favorite among his films and the only one he wrote himself. In 1890s Anatolia, Stavros, a member of the Greek minority oppressed by the Turks, is humiliated by his father’s Christian meekness and dreams of escaping to America. A series of misadventures bear out his grandmother’s cynical credo: “No sheep ever saved its neck by bleating.” Stavros schemes and lies; he manipulates men and uses women to further his goal. “I don’t want that good family life,” he says. “All those good people, they stay here and they live in this shame. … I am going, no matter how.” The movie was based on the story of his uncle, but it’s hard not to hear in those words Kazan’s own determination to snatch what he wanted from life, and his sense that righteous behavior made you a victim.

He turned to writing novels after America America was released in 1963. He’d persuaded himself to take another stab at theater (an ill-fated attempt to establish a repertory company at Lincoln Center), and with the little time he had left over, he wanted to express himself directly. The novels were mostly autobiographical. He made an unsatisfactory movie from one (The Arrangement), then a small independent film written by his son Chris (The Visitors), and a lifeless version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, before giving up on movies altogether, a quarter-century before his death in 2003. He had said all that he needed to say through actors and images on a screen.

And he had struck a nerve with the teenagers of the 1950s who grew up to remake Hollywood in the ’70s. Young filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola were inspired by the energy and vitality of Kazan’s movies, so different from standard studio fare. They admired the gritty realism of On the Waterfront, shot on location in Hoboken, and the imaginative, active use of the normally static wide-screen format in East of Eden. They respected him as a master craftsman who never let technique get in the way of providing space for his actors to dig deep inside themselves. They appreciated his frankness about sex, his blunt depiction of family life as a battleground, his willingness to plunge into conflicts among classes, races, generations, and sexes. Most of all, they were galvanized by Kazan’s unsentimental vision: that life was too complicated to be reduced to moral platitudes, that betrayal and exploitation were coins of human commerce as common as love and loyalty, that all easy judgments were suspect. You can see Kazan’s legacy in Michael Corleone’s evolution from idealistic war heroism to cold-blooded fratricide in Coppola’s Godfather films, in Jordan Belfort’s relish for money, power, sex, and drugs in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, capped by a sardonic epilogue showing Belfort out of jail and giving sales seminars.

The 1999 Oscar broadcast is available online, and I’ve watched it several times recently. Seeing the frail, 89-year-old Kazan thank the Academy for its “courage” in honoring him still makes me feel sad, but then I think again. The tough old man who wrote A Life wouldn’t have thanked me for my pity. Kazan made the decision he did in 1952 so that he could continue to work in his chosen profession. The movies he made did not justify his decision, of course—art is not an excuse—but it was the right decision for him.

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Wendy Smith is a contributing editor of the Scholar and the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–1940.


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