Oscar night is Hollywood's single most important event. At the 1999 Academy Award ceremony, a frail, white-haired man, Elia Kazan, was led to the stage to receive the academy's most important award, for lifetime achievement. The applause was loud and the audience began a standing ovation. But not everybody took part. Rows of defiant celebrities remained seated, refusing to acknowledge his award.
For Kazan is the man who in the 1950s "named names" and identified members of the Communist Party working in Hollywood and New York. Those Congressional hearings, with Kazan's help, created the "Hollywood blacklist" which drove some of the most gifted writers, directors and actors out of the film and television industry. Even today, for many there is no forgiving those who "squealed".
Yet Kazan is also the man who directed such extraordinary films as On the Waterfront, East of Eden, A Streetcar Named Desire and Viva Zapata! and introduced us to two of the most enduring male icons, James Dean and Marlon Brando. Kazan is among our best film makers, yet he remains out in the cold, rather like Leni Riefenstahl. Can we respect and admire artists without judging their politics?
In this book, Jeff Young looks at both the politics and artistry of Kazan. Young, a producer and director, tells us that the films of Kazan "moved me more than anyone else's and forced and enabled me to think about my life and view the world around me as I never had before". But there is something more - Young's uncle was Ned Young, one of the most talented of the blacklisted writers and one who was never again able to write under his own name. Young made this clear to Kazan at the outset of their interviews, which began in 1971 and continued for 18 months. The only catch was that Young could not publish until after Kazan's autobiography had appeared. Twenty-eight years on, the interviews seem more relevant than ever, now that personal film - making in the United States mainstream is but a relic of the past.
Kazan, born to Greek parents, had lived in Istanbul, Berlin and New York by the time he was five years old. He studied at Yale Drama School and then landed an apprenticeship with the Group Theater, led by Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg. As actor, Kazan appeared in plays such as Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy and a few small roles in Hollywood. By the time the Group Theater disbanded in 1940, he had joined, served in and then quit the Communist Party. Already a director in the theatre, Kazan got his break when Orson Welles dropped out as director of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth and Kazan stepped in to replace him.
The interviews begin with Kazan's first film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn , and his approach to building a performance. "Before I start with anybody in any important role, I talk to them for a long time. The conversations have to do with their lives and before you know it they're telling you about their wives, mothers, children, infidelities and anything else they feel guilty about. You're storing it away. By the time you start with an actor, you know everything about him, where to go, what to reach for, what to summon up, what associations to make. Without their knowing it you're edging them towards the part so that the part becomes them. You're weaving these associations in all your conversations. The work before you start shooting is the most important work you do. The Stanislavsky Method has to do with the 'given circumstances' with which the actor comes into the scene." Kazan was the first director to bring the Method to mainstream Hollywood cinema.
Early on, Kazan tells Young he has admired and learned much from director John Ford. "Ford took the mythological figure of Abe Lincoln and made you understand the terrible pain of being a plain man with a mission that he felt inadequate to deal with. The audience admires Lincoln, he seems like a hero, not a conventional hero but a real hero. If you're going to talk to me about life, talk to me about life. Don't talk to me about technique."
As the interviews progress, Young seems to gain confidence. He challenges Kazan on Gentleman's Agreement , the highly acclaimed, Oscar-winning film, by telling him he thought it was simplistic agit-prop. Kazan responds by calling the film "disgusting". "The whole idea of a gentile pretending to be a Jew is a cop-out."
Kazan on A Streetcar Named Desire : "Tennessee [Williams] got after me to do the movie, which I resisted but finally said OK to." Young asks Kazan why he did not use the original Broadway star, Jessica Tandy. "I often wished I had. I didn't like Vivien Leigh, though I came to love her by the end. She kept saying 'Larry [Olivier] said this and Larry had this idea,' and I'd say, 'You're not doing it with Larry now, you're doing it with me and I don't like it that way.'
"There was nothing you could do with Brando that touched what he could do with himself. In those days he was a genius Part of the sexuality that Williams wrote into the play is the menace of it, so I had to get that quality from Brando. You told Brando what you wanted and tried to describe it in words that had meaning for him. By the time you finished telling him what a scene was about, he'd be way ahead of you."
Kazan on Viva Zapata! : "I always thought Zapata was a fascinating figure because of one act. He got power and walked away from it. I was living next to John Steinbeck, who was a close friend of mine in those years. He was between marriages and had been having a very bad time. I said I thought Zapata's story would make a good film. So John went to Mexico and did a thorough research job. The other thing was that John and I were both ex-Communists, and Zapata's story allowed us to show metaphorically what had happened to the Communists in the Soviet Union - how their leaders became reactionary and repressive rather than forward-thinking and progressive. That was the first picture I did where I felt, I can really be a good director."
Young tells Kazan that many see On the Waterfront as an apologia for a stool pigeon. "There's a difference. On the Waterfront is a story of informing where it seems like the greater good, despite the fact it goes against the code of community. I hated [Senator Joseph] McCarthy. It was embarrassing to be on the same side as him. People thought I made the Brando character into a Jesus figure, leading the workers back to work. Lindsay Anderson, the English critic turned director, thought it was a Fascist picture. Bud Schulberg didn't like my ending either. He thought it would be better if Terry were killed. So he wrote the novel afterward with a different ending."
Kazan reveals in detail how he prepared with Brando, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint and the love/hate relationship with producer Sam Spiegel. He goes into great detail, too, about working with James Dean on East of Eden . "You can't not like a guy with that much pain in him." Kazan moved Dean into a dressing room at the Warner Bros studio so he could look after him at night when shooting had finished.
The final interview takes place at Kazan's beach house in Long Island, New York. Kazan meets Young at the train station, obviously pleased to see him again. The next morning Young is awakened at 5.30am by the sound of Kazan at the typewriter. Soon after, they begin what Young knows is their final encounter. He goes right to the heart of the matter. "If you really believed that there was a Communist conspiracy and that it presented a real danger to our country, why did you stop there? Why didn't you go further? Why didn't you tell them things they didn't know, give them names that they didn't already have, get rid of all the Red bastards? For a moment Kazan looked right at me, alert as a bobcat. He crossed his arms, pulling them close to his chest as if protecting himself from the cold and spoke very quietly: 'I don't have to defend myself to you or anyone else.' He held my eyes a moment longer. Then his head dropped forward, and he passed out cold."
Most show-business books seem tedious and irrelevant, filled with heresy and self-aggrandisement. But this series of fascinating and extraordinarily revealing interviews is uniquely rewarding for anyone with the least interest in movies, acting or directing. For professionals, it is essential reading.
Sandy Lieberson, former president of 20th Century Fox, has produced more than 30 films and documentaries.
Kazan: the Master Director Discusses His Films: Interviews with Elia Kazan
Author - Jeff Young
ISBN - 0 571 19217 3
Publisher - Faber
Price - £12.99
Pages - 352