Time magazine film critic Schickel seeks to bolster Kazan’s reputation as a major American film and theater talent.
Fifty-three years after he named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Elia Kazan remains a lightning rod. Mention of his name draws anger, as the outcries over his receiving an honorary Oscar in 1999 attest. Controversy unfairly clouds Kazan’s oeuvre, Schickel argues, claiming that “no one has ever been such a dominant directorial force simultaneously in film and theater.” Shickel’s objectives thus become two-fold: to challenge the impact—or the damage—of Kazan’s HUAC testimony, and to assess the value of the plays and films Kazan directed. The author follows Kazan’s work in the 1930s with the Group Theater, emphasizing that Kazan’s eventual disenchantment with their work centered on matters related to Communism. Kazan, he repeats, endorsed only the more general ideals of Communism while disdaining the goals of American Communists, which many Group members embraced. Kazan’s career reached an unparalleled ascendancy during the ’50s, Schickel writes, with two now classic Broadway productions, A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, and several films, notably On the Waterfront. Working with Kazan’s hitherto unpublished production notebooks, Schickel provides valuable insight into Kazan’s work on these lyrical plays and documentary-like films. As for Kazan’s HUAC testimony, which coincided with this peak in his career, he downplays its damage and empathizes with its practicality: not to name the names of people who were going to be exposed sooner or later, Schickel writes, would have been career suicide for the director. “The blacklist was only occasionally a tragedy; mostly it was an inconvenience,” he concludes, an observation that’s certain to keep churning the arguments over Kazan’s actions before HUAC.
These appraisals, notable for their broad critical vision, may persuade some to reconsider Kazan’s work, if not his political behavior.