Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Let me recommend Richard Schickel's critical biography of Elia Kazan. Schickel knows his stuff, and puts it out there clearly. As with other Schickel stuff, I often strongly disagree with his artistic assessments, but he's still worth reading.

Schickel is especially good on the political side. He describes quite well how so many Americans in the 30s would be attracted to communism, and also how successfully communists operatives who got direct orders from Moscow infiltrated certain sectors of American society. He also does a good job with the HUAC era. Kazan notoriously named names, but Schickel understands enough about the times that the whole issue isn't presented in simple black and white.

Schicked should know. When Kazan was presented an honorary Oscar, it became a huge controversy, and many Academy members decided to sit on their hands rather than give him a standing ovation. It was Schickel who had produced the film tribute to Kazan shown before the award.

Ironically, it's on artistic grounds where I question if Kazan (who'd already won two directing Oscars anyway) deserved the award. It is true in the 40s and 50s Kazan had a run in theatre and cinema that no other director has probably ever matched, critically speaking. In film, he made, among others, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Gentleman's Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, On The Waterfront, East Of Eden and A Face In The Crowd. On stage his credits are even more impressive, including The Skin Of Our Teeth, All My Sons, Tea And Sympathy, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs, J.B., Sweet Bird Of Youth, and, oh yeah, maybe the two most significant American plays of the 20th century, A Streetcar Named Desire and Death Of A Salesman.

I can't speak on his Broadway productions, though I have to assume they must have had something going for them. But his films, though they often feature imaginative acting, tend to leave me cold. Kazan often put his message too clearly up front, letting it get in the way of the art. Also, now that what was once cutting edge no longer seems so shocking, and what's left isn't so impressive.


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