This essay by Aaron West is part of our continuing Awards Season journey.
Elia Kazan was and still is a controversial figure. Below is a video from his 2008 Academy Awards Lifetime Achievement presentation. Scroll to the 1:15 mark where Kazan walks out on stage. You’ll hear applause and see some people standing, like Warren Beatty who cheers effusively. As for those that remain seated, of which there are many, some politely applaud. There is a candid shot of Ed Harris, seated with his wife, Amy Madigan, looking sullen and offended. Nick Nolte had similar body language, showing no respect for the embattled Director.
People are not protesting his talent, innovation or creativity. They are protesting his actions and politics from what he did 56 years prior. To many in Hollywood, Elia Kazan did the unspeakable. He named names during one of the most volatile periods in film history, not to mention American history. The red scare and McCarthyism reared its ugly head, tried to root out undesirables who were influencing decent Americans, and blacklisted those who had any involvement, real or suspected, with the Communist Party.
Even today, after all these decades have passed, the wound has not healed in Hollywood. They will never forget how the political period ruined careers and even lives. Some in the industry stood in solidarity, most notably the Hollywood 10, who refused to testify. Others caved, named names, and were able to continue working. Elia Kazan was part of the latter category. It does not matter that the people he named had already been named. He betrayed the people who were buried for their beliefs and saved his career by doing so.
Personally, Kazan’s actions are indefensible, even though he made tremendous films afterward. To an extent, I can understand why he made the decisions he made. He was in a situation where he could choose not to cooperate and be blacklisted. He loved making movies. He had already been acclaimed for films such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Gentleman’s Agreement. He was just coming off a major success with A Streetcar Named Desire, which had won four Oscars, including three of the four acting categories (many think it should have been a clean sweep, but Brando lost to Bogart for The African Queen). Kazan had proven to be an exceptional director, and the last thing he wanted was stop working in the industry.
He was no left-wing sympathizer either. He is quoted as saying “What the hell am I giving all this up for? To defend a secrecy I didn’t think right and to defend people who’d already been named or soon would be by someone else? I said I’d hated the Communists for many years and didn’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them.” He named names, continued working, and a couple years later produced arguably his finest film, which was itself a defense against his actions.
Enter Terry Malloy ….
In On the Waterfront, Terry Malloy inadvertently participates in a wicked crime. In his mind, he was doing his “friends” at the Longshoremen Union a favor by setting them up to speak to his friend Joey, who had already spoken out against the Union. They went against their word to Terry, and he was not fine with that. “He wasn’t a bad kid, that Joey,” he appeals to them later, wondering why they did such a thing. However dismayed, speaking out was not an option. One of the witnesses says “Keep quiet. You’ll live longer.”
Terry Malloy wrestles with his demons just as Elia Kazan must have wrestled with his. Malloy hated the Union. Kazan hated the Communists. Admittedly, Kazan took it quite a bit further. The Communists were not murdering people, but during the mindset of the time, the rhetoric against the Communists from the political right was scathing. Kazan most likely saw things in Hollywood that he didn’t approve of, just like Terry Malloy, and he may not have felt comfortable looking the other way.
There is no question that On the Waterfront is Kazan’s answer for his behavior. He is rationalizing the fact that he spoke out against what he felt was wrong. History was not on his side. In hindsight, we know that people who did not cooperate were able to eventually work again, although for some that was after years of being out of the industry. Some never did work again.
Kazan would have been the highest profile witness to defy the committee, and there is no telling what consequences he would have suffered. It is difficult to imagine what anyone would do in a similar situation.
There are a number of similarities between the fiction and the reality. The reality was that Kazan was served with a subpoena from the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) against his will and had to do some serious soul searching as to how to testify. In the end, he decided to name eight people who had already been named. One of the names, Paula Strasberg (wife of Lee), actually permitted Kazan to name her. She was out of the industry so it made no difference.
The fiction was that Malloy was a longshoreman who had worked under the protection of a corrupt Union, and after the Joey incident, was served a subpoena to testify to the Federal Crime Commission. This was not the police. It was a committee that was investigating crime on the waterfront because, as one of those pursuing Malloy says, “the public has a right to know.” There would be consequences to those named at the hearing, we would learn later, but they were not immediate. Down the road they would likely be served with an indictment. Just like the HUAC, the Federal Crime Commission had no actual authority to arrest. They existed merely to weed out and showcase those who were compromising public order.
There are many differences, and Kazan clearly took license with his own situation. Malloy suffered personal tragedies, whereas Kazan’s only risk was professional. He is not literally saying that the Communists, Hollywood Unions, or any individuals were committing violent crimes. By this point, he had become adept at using metaphor, even something as heavy handed as corruption. However, by making such a bold and drastic comparison, he is saying that they are unequivocally wrong. The Commission is right, and by cleaning up the docks, the workers will no longer be victims.
After his testimony, Malloy is rejected by all but those closest to him. People walk by without acknowledging him. A former kid “friend” even kills all his pigeons. He is ridiculed, humiliated, and devastated. Rather than take it on the chin as he did during his boxing career, Malloy does what Kazan did not. He heads to the docks to face his critics. He rails against them for their corruption, for keeping the longshoremen down. He boldly proclaims that “I’m glad what I’ve done! I’m glad what I’ve done!”
Elia Kazan was stubborn to a tee. After his HUAC testimony, he was crucified by his industry. He was shunned just like Malloy was, but he kept working. Malloy also kept working. Kazan most likely wished circumstances had not placed him in this position, but given the hand he was drawn, he might have also said “I’m glad what I’ve done!” Even at the Oscar ceremony in the video above, had he been so bold, he might have said that. Instead, he decided to “slip away,” as he put it.
On the Waterfront is a great film for several reasons. The acting is revolutionary. Another key reason is because this was a film of passion from Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg, who had also named names. There have been a number of passion projects with themes and conclusions that I have not agreed with, but when the passion is felt on screen through good writing and splendid performances, it is almost always a work of significance. On the Waterfront is Kazan’s explanation for what he did, and exclamation at those who judged him harshly. To many, including myself, it also happens to be a masterpiece.
Elia Kazan: A Life, Elia Kazan
Elia Kazan, Richard Schickel