Film Studies: After half a century, it's time to stroke Elia's mane

Elia Kazan is only months short of 90 now, and he no longer has the savage grin that once shone out of his famously ugly, yet compelling, face. Still, I doubt if any illness will prevent him being in Los Angeles on 21 March when he is set - at last - to receive his honorary Oscar for life achievement. He wouldn't miss the chance to hear his old enemies howl again. And there is no greater argument with these Oscars than whether he should even be there.

When the speech is made introducing Kazan - and if there was honour left, Marlon Brando would deliver it - the truth should be told. It should be said that in l952, as an ex-Communist and a director whose career was threatened, Elia Kazan named names - old friends or associates, lesser figures. He entered into a kind of betrayal, which he called cleansing or redemption (he and his wife took out a rather tacky ad in the New York Times), and those names were blacklisted. Kazan went back to work. The eulogy should add that all the big studios went along with the institutional cowardice. Hollywood and the Academy agreed to their own shame.

Brando likely won't be there: he is so complacent and cynical, he can't tell one from the other. So Karl Malden will make the speech, which is fair enough, because Malden worked for Kazan, on stage and screen in A Streetcar Named Desire, on film in On the Waterfront and Baby Doll. But it will stay a discreet speech, I suspect, unless some of those screenwriters who really loathe Kazan (and are as old) can raise a chant, or unless Kazan offers to knock out their (false) teeth.

This honorary Oscar did not come easily. There has been talk for years now that the American Film Institute and film festivals have passed over his name, no matter that there was no one left to match his record. In Kazan movies, there have been 24 nominations for acting Oscars; nine of those won. As a board member of the San Francisco Film Festival, I proposed Kazan several years ago for a tribute, and an old leftist, a friend, growled, "Over my dead body." Such battles got into the press, and Kazan - though frail - added to the vexation by staying alive. Until this year, when the Academy said it would give its Irving Thalberg Award to Arthur Hiller. Well, Hiller is a nice man, and popular; he made some gentle hits and he was president of the Academy. But Thalberg's bronze head was once kept for lions. And if Hiller was getting that, Kazan deserved the annual parking revenues of Los Angeles.

Not that he has missed Oscars in the past: he won for directing Gentleman's Agreement and On the Waterfront, and they got Best Picture, too. He is a man who can claim to have discovered Warren Beatty, Rod Steiger, Jo Van Fleet, Lee Remick, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, Kim Hunter, Jessica Tandy.

And three others: Montgomery Clift, Brando, James Dean. More than that, every actor in America honours Kazan as co-founder of the Actors' Studio (and thus the Method), and the pursuer of that neurotic inner life that can be so emotional on screen. Kazan made the post-war actor an American existential model - for good and ill - somewhere between therapy and adventure, turmoil and clarity, infantilism and sexual glory.

So it's no wonder that Kazan was an actor himself once, famous as the guy who calls "Strike!" in Clifford Odets' play Waiting for Lefty. By then, Kazan was a member of the Group Theater, so wolfish-looking he reckoned he would be a director, with power over handsome actors. But he had come so far already - from Istanbul and Anatolia as a child, to be a stealthy ethnic kid watching the girls at Williams College in Massachusetts. Even then he was called "Gadge" - short for "Gadget": he could do things with his hands - ask the girls.

He became a spellbinding director who learned all he could about the lives of his players, and then used that power to improve performance. Some said he was manipulative and an opportunist. But the results were triumphant. He did Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth on stage (his first use of Clift), and became the director of Tennessee Williams (Streetcar) and Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman - the first production, with Lee J. Cobb). He split his time, from l945 onwards, between Broadway and Hollywood, and he made decent, if rather dull films - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Sea of Grass, Boom-erang!, Gentleman's Agreement, Pinky, Panic in the Streets.

Then came the crisis - right after Viva Zapata!. Let's not forget or excuse it. But look deeper: Kazan was being the outsider, the dark brother - he was being Cain. And so he made East of Eden, that beguiling piece of special pleading that Cain was really the interesting and the wounded brother. His best work had the energy of his ignominy: On the Waterfront, Eden, Baby Doll, A Face in the Crowd, and the lovely Wild River in which Clift plays a government man who has to rehouse matriarch Jo Van Fleet (Cal's mother in Eden, too), as the Tennessee Valley is dammed in the Thirties.

Are these great films? Not quite. Though East of Eden was a turning point if you were the right age, as if Kazan's Dean your own awkward, ruinous desires. So settle for an historic director - and clap with one hand? - while realising the dangerous ways some creative souls must go if they are to discover themselves. If they believe in nothing else. If you want more, read Kazan's A Life, a terrific, demonic piece of self- justification. Oh, let's clap with two hands. This is a lion. When comes such another?

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