In the tenth installment of Las Movies, the space that El American dedicates to analyzing the world of culture and entertainment, Ignacio M. García Medina talks to us about the life and work of Istanbul-born Greek-American filmmaker Elia Kazan, author of such cinema classics as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and East of Eden (1955).
Kazan, who was “probably one of the fundamental pieces in the history of cinema,” was a theater director, producer, screenwriter, actor and writer. However, his film work as a director was “revolutionary and influential.” He was recognized as a great “discoverer of actors”, as he launched talents such as James Dean, Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty to stardom.
Hailed as “one of the greatest film directors of all time,” he was one of the founders of the iconic New York-based school and association of American actors, directors and writers – currently headed by Al Pacino and Ellen Burstyn – which trained icons such as Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Montgomery Clift.
Despite his magnificent record of influence on film culture, Kazan is not the media icon that everyone refers to and is not often publicly applauded. Ignacio tells us that this is because he did not share the leftist vision that prevailed then (and still prevails) in Hollywood and because he collaborated with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Kazan was temporarily a member of the Communist Party of America, but later denounced to the HUAC several of his former Marxist co-supporters infiltrated in the American film industry, something that “was not very funny in Hollywood. And he hasn’t been forgiven yet.”
In 1999, he was recognized with an Honorary Oscar after a “battle” by Martin Scorsese, who had to insist to an Academy reluctant to reward his undeniable credentials, resume and influence. During that standing ovation offered to him by a good part of the audience, Ed Harris, Sophia Loren, Nick Nolte (among others) decided to frown or withhold their applause in rejection of Kazan’s past (or “to show that they were very communist”, as Ignacio tells us).
Many of his films, according to the vision provided by the host of Las Movies, try to explain or justify his decision to “take a stand against communism” and “denounce those he considered conspirators and enemies of America that had given him freedom and the possibility of prospering and succeeding.”
Elia Kazan’s testimony inside On The Waterfront
He gives the example of On The Waterfront (1954) — with Marlon Brando, Marl Malden and Rod Steiger — as “perhaps the film that best conveys” Kazan’s libertarian and pro-American message.
This film tells the story of a young longshoreman who confronts the union mafia that controls the docks, who take a large part of the workers and “liquidate” those who denounce the abuses of the system.
Marlon Brando’s character, a promising young boxer, gets beaten in a fixed-odds fight with the union mafia for which his older brother works. He is soon implicated in the murder of one of the mob’s detractors, but his loyalty begins to “waver” when he falls in love with his victim’s sister.
With her, the character meets a priest who is trying to organize the workers against the union and its criminal ways of operating, and is charged with infiltrating the parish to study and report on its activities. But his conscience prevents him from doing so, and he eventually ends up testifying against the mafia (and his brother).
What could seemingly be a loathsome character, in On The Waterfront, Kazan turns him into a hero who stands up against the evil, corrupt and murderous system. “The parallel with communism is not very subtle,” Ignacio tells us, who sees the film as Kazan’s testimony to his situation vis-à-vis the communists.
“It’s a perfect demonstration” of the importance of narrative and storytelling in the way a story is told. “Depending on how it is told to us, with all its edges, double sides and interpretations, we can take one position or another,” Ignacio comments.
“This film makes us see how whoever dominates the story and the narrative dominates thoughts and public opinion,” says García Medina. “It’s always good to be able to see something different from what Hollywood usually shows us, which is usually the opposite of this.” And usually when we talk about “witch hunt,” we think of injustice.
As Ignacio says: “We know that witches do not exist, but watch out: communists do exist and they work in the shadows to shoehorn their version of history and impose their way of understanding society.”
Don’t miss this and previous installments of Las Movies, hosted by Ignacio. You can find all the chapters on our YouTube channel.