William Baer (ed),
Elia Kazan: Interviews.
University of Mississipi Press, 2000.
ISBN: 1 57806 224 1 (pb)
(review copy supplied by University of Mississippi Press)
Uploaded 1 December 2001
Elia Kazan’s career is unique among major American film directors in that he achieved at least equal acclaim in the theatre, where he worked with the leading American playwrights of his generation, and lesser but not negligible success as a novelist when his film career began to wane. His years as a film director of the first rank were rather limited. Yet it is for his films that he is remembered.
This book’s focus on films gives its chronologically arranged interviews (spanning from 1951 to 1988) a coherence that might elude a collection of a broader scope. Kazan’s theatre work and his novel-writing frequently come up, but almost always in response to a question of film. And the chronological arrangement often renders the inevitable repetitions enlightening. The reader may groan when the eighth interview in the book starts off with “let’s go back to the beginning,” but that is a small irritation to endure for an opportunity to observe how the passage of time tempers or intensifies Kazan’s views.
The interviews contain interesting observations on all of Kazan’s films, but it is around his most famous one, On the Waterfront (USA 1954), that the two most intriguing questions about Kazan revolve. One is the nature and value of his cinematic achievement. The other is his testimony – his naming names of Hollywood figures who had once been members of the Communist Party – before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952.
The contribution to cinematic style for which Kazan is most noted is his importation, primarily via Marlon Brando, of the so-called and reverently capitalized “Method” from stage to screen acting, and in this book we get different explanations of what that elusive term meant. In a 1964 interview, Kazan reduces its essence to the establishment of a goal that the character wants, aided by the recall of an emotionally similar moment in the actor’s personal life (60-1). In 1970, he says that the Method prescribed a process for training and rehearsing, not actual performance (107).
Kazan does not pretend to understand the mystery of Brando’s genius. Kazan will talk about how he’d give Brando an idea of what was wanted, Brando would walk away before Kazan had finished, and then come back and surprise Kazan with a brilliant touch. Kazan credits Brando, not himself, for the memorable moments the actor brought to the screen, such as gently brushing aside his brother’s gun in On the Waterfront or the tender gesture of straightening his wife’s shawl as he leaves for his final mission in Viva Zapata! (USA 1952)
Kazan also pioneered location shooting. The virtually unknown Boomerang (USA 1947) was his first location film. According to Kazan, this was when he first went against convention and decided to shoot on a rainy day and take advantage of it. The underrated Panic in the Streets (USA 1950) makes vivid use of New Orleans locations, but, as Kazan himself notes, only with Viva Zapata! – shot in the southwestern Texas – and On the Waterfront did he succeed in imbuing his location-shot films with emotional resonance.
On the Waterfront is the film in which Kazan drew most heavily on conventional film technique – lighting, angles, composition, editing, sound effects – and he has things to say about various well-known scenes: the priest’s “ascent to heaven” from the hold of the ship; Terry’s drowned-out confession to Edie; the love scene on the roof; the cab ride. But as powerful a film as On the Waterfront may be, its film technique often seems applied rather than fully integrated or deeply felt. Kazan acknowledges that the scene of Terry’s final confrontation with the mob and his subsequent struggle to lead the men back to work is over-directed. He defends the priest’s heavenward ascent.
Given his ideas about acting, it is not surprising that Kazan found himself attracted to John Ford’s use of the long shot and put off by Hitchcock. Kazan’s non-responsiveness to Hitchcock betrays the limitation of his own achievement in film. No director relied more on film technique – especially editing – to produce an emotional response than actors-should-be-treated-like-cattle Hitchcock, and it is Hitchcock’s films, not Kazan’s, that continue to fascinate, surprise, and inspire multiple readings. Kazan over-emphasised acting at the expense of technique. There was too much Method in his method.
About his House testimony, Kazan is forthright. He says that “what I did was repulsive” but stands by his decision (158). On the relationship between that act and On the Waterfront, the chronologically arranged interviews unveil a gradual acknowledgement. In a 1966 interview, Kazan talks as if On the Waterfront is only about the waterfront (92-3). In 1971, he is more ambivalent when asked if the film was about him (139). In 1974, he says that “Terry Malloy felt like I did . . . ashamed and proud of himself at the same time.”(181) But he saved his strongest avowal for his autobiography (A Life, Knopf, 1988), where he says that when Terry shouts to Johnny Friendly, “‘I’m glad what I done – you hear me?- glad what I done!’ that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad that I had testified as I had” (500).
People with literary ambitions often hedge their responses to interview questions, reserving the best stuff for their own use. But Kazan’s autobiography meanders tediously. It is self-indulgent and undisciplined, full of inconsequential information. William Baer’s collection of interviews is by contrast economical and focussed. Kazan’s interlocutors here are other people, not himself, and they keep him on the point.