Montgomery Clift (center) plays a field administrator for the Tennessee Valley Authority in Elia Kazan's 1960 drama Wild River. Critic John Powers says the film is one of Kazan's finest.
Montgomery Clift (center) plays a field administrator for the Tennessee Valley Authority in Elia Kazan's 1960 drama Wild River. Critic John Powers says the film is one of Kazan's finest. Fox
It's one of life's teasing truisms that artists' landmark works are often not necessarily their best ones. A prime example of this is Elia Kazan, one of the defining — and polarizing — figures in post-war American culture. Not only did Kazan help revolutionize the theater, he forever changed the movies, ushering in a whole new era of screen acting. He worked with the holy trinity of Method dreamboats — Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean — and launched the likes of Warren Beatty, Lee Remick and Eva Marie Saint.
The trajectory of Kazan's career has now been charted in The Elia Kazan Collection, a box set featuring 15 of his key films. It's a terrific collection anchored by some of the most mythic performances in film history: Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando again in On the Waterfront and, of course, Dean in East of Eden, a groundbreaking performance so quirkily histrionic in its vulnerability that, seen through today's wised-up eyes, Dean appears to be acting in a story by Kafka, not Steinbeck.
These are films everyone should see. But for me, the true pleasure of this set lies in other, lesser-known films that I actually like better. The finest is Wild River, a 1960 film set in the Tennessee Valley during the 1930s. Clift plays Chuck Glover, a young federal administrator who's been sent to get an ornery old matriarch — played by Jo Van Fleet — to leave her plantation before it's flooded. He winds up getting romantically involved with her widowed granddaughter, who's played by Remick with such intense purity of emotion — and such blueness of eye — that she takes your breath away.
Kazan always had a fondness for cussed characters like that, no doubt because he was one himself. He was born to Anatolian Greek parents who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 4. It was a difficult life that made him a difficult man. In his great autobiography, he wrote that he woke up mad every single day. But his experience gave him an immigrant's sense of America — its possibilities and its harsh realities — and this drew him to big, juicy American stories, usually with serious social themes.
Kazan tackled everything from anti-Semitism in Gentleman's Agreement to public health in Panic in the Streets, a terrific New Orleans noir starring Richard Widmark as a military doctor trying to run down a gang of crooks infected with plague. My favorite of these social pictures is A Face in the Crowd, a riveting, nasty 1957 movie about a demagogic TV star played with sinister brilliance by an Andy Griffith you'd never let around Opie. You can see today's media culture in every frame.
Although Kazan could be a clunky director, he made great use of locations, boasted a gritty sense of reality and guided actors into psychological depths. He was superb at exploring personal relationships, be it the love between father and daughter in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (exquisitely acted by James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner) or the immigrant ruthlessness of the hero in America, America. Based on his uncle's story, this fiercely unsentimental movie follows a young man who does what it takes — and it takes cruel things — to make it from Anatolia to American soil.
Bursting with chutzpah, Kazan himself did whatever it took to make it big in America. Even as he enjoyed the fruits of success — he was a man who bragged about his sexual conquests — he joined in the Red Scare of the '50s, naming names in his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Although this tainted his name in Hollywood to this day, it also made his subsequent movies far more interesting; not coincidentally, his most powerful work is On the Waterfront, the story of an ex-boxer turned longshoreman (Brando's Terry Malloy) who informs on corrupt union bosses.
In one of that film's most beautiful scenes, Terry and his girl, played by Eva Marie Saint, are up on a rooftop where Terry keeps pigeons. He tells her the city is full of hawks; they hang around atop the big hotels, and when they spot a pigeon in the park, they pounce.
It's one measure of what made Elia Kazan such a dominating figure that, more than half a century later, it's hard to be sure who he identified with more — the victimized pigeons or the predatory hawks.