Elia Kazan Reconsidered

    I've been meaning to write about film for a while but haven't gotten around to it. For me, like most of us I guess, writing well requires both knowledge and passion about a topic and a sense that I have something unique to add. Lots of times, I have one or two but not all three. In late Spring 2011, I wrote a brief article entitled The San Francisco Giants have the Best Pitching Staff in Baseball. I wrote it because I was watching or listening to every Giants' game with great attention (knowledge), I loved the team (passion), and the consensus among commentators was that while the Giants' pitchers were outstanding the Phillies' were better (unique take).

    I generally don't write about economics because Paul Krugman is better at it than I am – he knows more about the subject and may care more – plus my takes are usually pretty close to his. So, why spend time and energy to set them out on a computer screen? At some point, I will write about the critical importance of taxing carbon if we want complex organisms to have a future over a few decades long but I haven't gotten around to it quite yet.

    I love movies – especially ones that were produced before 1980. I like to think I know a lot about certain genres but generally don't disagree with the critical consensus on the best movies, directors, and actors. For example, my favorite films in various genres include: The Rules of the Game, Casabalanca, and John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle. My favorite actors include: Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, John Wayne, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart. Actresses I love include: Jean Arthur, Ginger Rogers, and Barbara Stanwyck. And, Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, John Ford, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood are on my short list of top directors. So, basically, my tastes are the same as lots of other people's.

    Except when it comes to Elia Kazan. The anti-communist director was lionized in the 40s, 50s, and 60s for such “classics” as Gentleman's Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and Splendor in the Grass. His reputation as a great filmmaker continues to this day. In 1999, he received a lifetime achievement award at the Academy Awards. The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made Revised Edition (2004) includes five Kazan movies. In 2010, Susan King in the LA Times said he was “one of the consummate filmmakers of the 20th century.” Late last year, Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin on TCM called Splendor in the Grass one of the “essentials.”

    The problem is Kazan's movies basically suck. Compare the cramped sets, portentous overacting, glacial plot development, and overt moralizing that characterize 1947's Gentleman's Agreement, and the early 50's movies - A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden, with Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950)or even 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives.

    In The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler takes a basically trite conceit – the struggles of four archetypical WW II veterans to reintegrate into a changed world for which military service left them unprepared – and elicits real empathy and recognition from the viewer. Four years later, Billy Wilder made the definitive Hollywood movie wherein the monstrous long-forgotten screen queen Norma Desmond takes justifiable revenge on the modern film industry, embodied in scriptwriter Joe Gillis, that has passed her by.  Both movies are fast-paced with believable and fully human characters.

    Interestingly, both Wyler and Wilder used understated actors to make their films with Dana Andrews, Fredric March, and Myrna Loy, among others, in Lives, and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard playing it straight. The one “big” performance in these movies is Gloria Swanson's Desmond and of course her over-the-top emoting is designed both to evoke nostalgia for as well as poke gentle fun at the long dead silent era.

    Kazan's great “strength” has always been considered his ability to draw out definitive acting performances. Susan King quotes film historian and Brooklyn College professor Foster Hirsch as saying: "I think [Kazan's] films from the 1950s, the good ones, are the best-acted films I have ever seen," said Hirsch. "I don't think there is an expiration date on this great acting. 'Baby Doll' and 'On the Waterfront' are like the best-acted films ever made." Ironically, Kazan's actors are often all but unwatchable. James Dean starred in three movies made by three very well-know directors. First came Kazan's East of Eden, then Nicholas Ray's Rebel without a Cause and finally George Stevens' Giant. Of the three directors, Stevens probably has the least cachet today as his films are wrongly in my view considered static. Yet, Dean's performance in Giant is easily the best of his career.

    In East of Eden, Dean mumbles, speaks in a monotone, and is altogether uninteresting. In his many scenes, he is filmed either as the dominant figure or facing father Raymond Massey as an equal. Despite, Dean's good looks, Kazan cannot make him compelling and only Massey's failure to engage the camera prevents him from completely overwhelming Dean. In the end, we simply don't care about the young star. Dean doesn't really overact in East of Eden. In fact, he hardly acts at all. Fortunately, Julie Harris serves as the requisite Kazan scenery chewer explaining in her big scene why her dad named her Abra with momentousness befitting the signing of a major peace treaty.

    In Giant, George Stevens used Dean far more effectively. His bursts of energy when wild-catting contrasted with pictures of him leaning back motionless in a wooden chair with a Stetson covering his eyes portray a young man desperate to achieve business success and Elizabeth Taylor but otherwise uninterested in life. Stevens also employed the vast empty Texas landscape as an important character shaper. Stagey Kazan with his dependence on dialogue is incapable of such directorial virtuosity.

    When Kazan's films don't suck, it's because the scripts are so good that he couldn't quite ruin them. Essentially, a filmer of plays, if the screenplay and actors are good enough, even Kazan's uninspired direction may not be fatal. There are some powerful scenes in On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd, both scripted by Budd Schulberg. Waterfront works best when inspired actors Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, or Karl Malden are on screen. The famous scene in the back of the car with Cobb, Steiger, and Marlon Brandon and when Brando tells Steiger he "couldda been a contender" are memorable.

    Likewise, Schulberg's portrayal of an amoral television star using and being used by political opportunists in 1957's A Face in the Crowd, is truly prophetic and Walter Matthau's world-weary cynicism seems authentic. Unfortunately, the movie is marred by Andy Griffith's and Patricia Neal's overacting – almost certainly at Kazan's instigation. In fact, in a supplement on the recently issued DVD, Griffith describes how Kazan got him to leer at co-star Lee Remick.

    Kazan is a controversial figure because the director appeared as a friendly witness before the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee in 1952. He is an example some say of a great artist but a flawed man. The reality is far less romantic. Kazan exemplified mediocrity (or worse) both in his work and political actions.


    Somehow I surmise this is a "somebody has politics I disapprove of so I have to write a diary saying their work sucks" diary.

    I'm not a fan of East of Eden (the book's much much better, but Baby Doll was fascinating, and On the Waterfront and Streetcar of course are classics. Thanks for reminding me though, some like Pinky and a Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Wild River I'd like to check out.

    Wail away.

    I actually surmised this is as being more akin to a "somebody made movies I disapprove of because of their mediocrity, and just by chance his politics sucked, too" diary.  The point of the diary is that the first part is worthy of detailing in a blog because the general consensus among the critics it would seem was that his movies weren't mediocre, but rather great films. 


    Oh right, which is why he had to reach back 60 years to the early 1950's, rather than say how horrible David Lynch's Dune was, the repetitiveness of Woody Allen, the awfulness of the 2nd Willie Wonka (vs. the much more interesting Edward Scissorhands), or Martin Scorcese's worst work.

    Elia Kazan was lauded not by just "critics" but by other directors and of course the Academy (not that the Academy isn't flawed).

    The reviews here have the thumb on the scale to make all the actors great, Kazan lucky at best. James Dean's overwraught act in Rebel without a Cause should give an idea that maybe Dean's performance in East of Eden wasn't so much Kazan's fault either. I'm not so sure I can let Kazan off the hook for the screenplay, but judging Hollywood at the time, a liberal/socialist book about a Salinas Valley patriarch who examines the Talmud with his Chinese lackey/intellectual peer is a bit more challenging than Giants.

    I can't quite figure out the "cramped sets, portentous overacting, glacial plot development" bit. Plays were much more common then, Brando in The Wild One is no less overacting than On the Waterfront, and I didn't find Baby Doll "glacial". The only attribute I find useful in this diatribe might be "moralizing", though the morals in Baby Doll are Tennessee Williams', which are far from the Abrahamic ones found in East of Eden (oddly enough, in the book, the latter is a much more forgiving Jewish Talmudic view of the frequently vengeful Old Testament God, while Baby Doll is much more about pure revenge. And as some have noted, the moralistic ending for Streetcar Named Desire was forced on Kazan, instead of the ending where Stanley comes out triumphant.


    Are you suggesting that the reason Hal had to "reach back 60 years to the early 1950's" was to find "somebody [with] politics I disapprove of"? Because otherwise, I don't understand the point of your first paragraph.

    Well, I'm sure he could find a more recent political disagreement, but the Kazan effort allows him to write about politics while pretending to write about movies. Come Halloween he can discuss the famous pumpkin as relates to the Boys of Autumn baseball tournees.

    It's interesting how easy it is for you to figure out Hal's motives for writing this short review considering how little else he has written (that I'm aware of), but how difficult it is for you to figure out Ron Paul's motive in allowing reams and reams of filth to be published in his newsletters. Your crystal ball must have a very interesting filter on it!


    sur·mise   [v. ser-mahyz; n. ser-mahyz, sur-mahyz] Show IPA verb, -mised, -mis·ing, noun
    verb (used with object)
    1. to think or infer without certain or strong evidence; conjecture; guess.
    verb (used without object)
    2. to conjecture or guess.
    3. a matter of conjecture.
    4. an idea or thought of something as being possible or likely.
    5. a conjecture or opinion.

    OK, it's interesting how easy it is for you to surmise what Hal's motives are for writing this short review considering how little else he has written (that I'm aware of), but how difficult it is for you to surmise what Ron Paul's motive is in allowing reams and reams of filth to be published in his newsletters.

    Is that better?

    You still miss the point.

    First, this post isn't rocket science - he makes 2 points, one central (the world somehow missed that Kazan sucks) and second a "by-the-way" (Kazan squealed to the unAmerican activities board).  I just "surmised" that maybe point #2 was the real craw in his throat.

    Second, I'm not speculating about Ron Paul's motives - everyone else is - finding racism in every comment, intolerable. I'm noting that Ron Paul is working against our foreign wars, and that's a good thing. He noted the Civil Rights Act restricted freedoms - pretty obvious, I'd think. Now whether it was reasonably judicious in restricting those freedoms - I think so - and whether there was a better Constitutional angle with long term effects - I dunno, Dr. Paul, don't quite see it, but tell me more....


    So, you "surmised" that maybe Hal's second point might be the real craw in his throat, but you are somehow uncomfortable "surmising" that the real motivation behind Ron Paul's libertarianism is the racist stuff he was writing (whoops, sorry, that was being written in his name) in the '80s and '90s, and that he's not just telling the anti-war people what they want to hear? Oh, he's a real good preacher. It's just that like most preachers, I think it's possible that he's as sincere as he wants us to think he is.

    I'll dial it back a bit. I think it's entirely possible that he is fervently anti-war. As for his property rights trump civil rights positions (which is where he seems to fall back to most often), I "surmise" that we can learn a lot about that by looking for the "real craw in his throat".


    <p>&quot;Uncomfortable&quot;? No, I noted that the joke Paul was repeating, that the Rodney King riots only stopped for blacks to pick up welfare checks, was pretty racist and obnoxious.</p>
    <p>I surmised that the specific flagged comments on page 7 out of 8 seemed a different style from the rest of the letter, so easily could have been added by a gung-ho copy editor - whether Ron Paul should have caught or corrected this, BTFOOM.</p>
    <p>I also noted that some of the other charges of Paul racism were probably just thin-skinned liberals feeling uncomfortable - like, is it absurd to describe the South Central riots as &quot;race riots&quot;?&nbsp;</p>
    <p>What&#39;s probably more important, since it&#39;s highly unlikely Paul will be elected to high office, is whether our unthinking allegiance to the powers of war, energy, finance and a sop to social programs has put us in the current bind where our government stopped paying attention to maintaining strong social system, and instead has become a collection agency for propping up our world-dominating war, energy &amp; finance machine. Matt Stoller at Naked Capitalism seems to agree on this.</a></p>
    <p>So whether Ron Paul is racist, I appreciate him keeping focus on the trillions both parties funneled to Wall Street and other insiders over the last 3 years. That&#39;s why I liked Alan Grayson, that&#39;s why I like Ted Kaufman, and presumably that&#39;s why I have a bit of fondness for Ron himself despite the R- beside his name (as well as his noting that both the war on drugs and wars on terror are corrupt, counter-productive ripoffs and attacks on personal freedoms). However much I think his &quot;Gold Standard&quot; bit is Fool&#39;s Gold, the fact is that the trillions we lost in 2008-2009 were a sign of &nbsp;Pure Folly that being off the Gold Exchange didn&#39;t save. But if we want to continue dancing around the racist-racist-racist maypole, we can certainly stay in our la-la land and be ripped off for many more years - Bernacke and Geithner and all their manipulators won&#39;t mind.</p>
    <p>That&#39;s what I surmise. Your turn.</p>

    Elia Kazan was lauded not by just "critics" but by other directors and of course the Academy (not that the Academy isn't flawed).

    And his point was that he felt compelled to write a blog in part when he felt he had something to add.  It was because Kazan was so lauded, which went against his own opinion of the man's films, that he reached back in time. 

    If I remember, a movie like Dune was not critically acclaimed as one the great films of our time.  For him to write about that would just be redundant, and he wouldn't be adding any to the conversation but an agreement with the other critics.

    I don't know if it's Kazan's politics that are interfering here, but...

    If a critic summarizes his views on Kazan's work with phrases like "basically suck" and "unwatchable" then how seriously should the critic be taken?

    Street Car and Waterfront are classics and powerful.

    Is that "just because" Kazan had great scripts or material or actors? Film is an inherently collaborative art. Yes, it's possible to sift out where the scriptwriter's talent ends and the director's begins but, in a way, who cares?

    For one thing, don't directors often influence the script in the end? Don't they choose the material and the actors they want to work with?

    Is the only real test of a director that he took a crappy script and made it better or turned it into a masterpiece with mediocre actors? What a strange criterion.

    Can directors really turn lead into gold? And if they can't perform that magic, then a great movie is great because all the parts are great and they all come together in a great way--which combining has a lot to do with the director, no?

    A couple of maybe-apocryphal stories:

    • John Ford is being pestered by a studio exec because one of his movies is off schedule. In frustration, he takes the script, tears out half the pages, and says, "There, we're back on schedule."

    • Dalton Trumbo hands Ford a sheaf of blank pages and says, "Give that the John Ford touch."

    It's both-and. If Hal doesn't like Kazan, it's fine by me. But just saying his movies suck and are unwatchable doesn't cut it as criticism.



    Good comments.

    It could be said that the words "basically suck" have a "leering" quality and pull the performance of the piece down. 

    "Basically suck" is short-hand for I'm too lazy or too time-strapped to explain and prove what I mean.

    As a some-time screenwriter, albeit unsuccessful, and a long-time watcher of the industry, one of the things that's always impressed me is how precariously balanced all movies are between success and failure.

    There are a HUGE number of moving parts in every production, many of which no one can really control. Sometimes, a scene looks great on the page, but doesn't play. Or maybe it's the actors who can't pull it off. Or maybe it's the director who can't get the actors to pull it off. Or maybe it's the studio execs who need to meddle and change endings or characters or actors.

    And then there's the chemistry between the actors that just can't be predicted. Great chemistry and you really feel the love story. No chemistry and it's just two good-looking people going through the moves.

    I've never done a study of this, but I wouldn't be surprised if all great directors have a lot of stinkers and mediocres in the can. And fans who will argue that the stinkers are really just sleepers waiting to be discovered and appreciated. And detractors who will argue, a la Hal, that the director has pulled the wool over every one's eyes for the last 50 years.

    It's all very subjective, except that people keep wanting to see and talk about the great movies. So there is agreement, as Hal notes, in the face of all this subjectivity. It's fine by me if he disagrees with the consensus (which he normally follows) about Kazan. To me, if all he ever made was Waterfront, he'd have earned the title, Great Director. To argue otherwise is stimulating, but he has to do more than say the movie was great because of the actors or the script and not what Kazan did.

    PP argues that Hal's aesthetic judgement is servant to a lurking political judgement. I don't see a lot of evidence for that in the "text." A lot of friends and colleagues abandoned Kazan over his snitching, but never denied he was a great director. So Hal is breaking new ground, AFAIK, with his thesis that Kazan was a snitch AND a bad director to boot. Okay, but give me something to chew on.

    Screenwriting must be a tough business. There is a joke in L.A. that if you stop anyone at random on the street and ask them how their screen play is coming along, they will tell you.

    I like your point about chemistry. I've never been a teacher but have been told that some classes work and some just don't and it's largely due to the chemistry of the particular group of students, none of which is predictable.

    BTW, nice writing on your part.   

    Thanks for that.

    I wrote four screenplays with a partner. It was fun for two of them and torture for the second two. We got optioned on two of them for no money, but nothing was made. We had an agent, maybe two at different times.

    Truth is, I don't think we were very good, but I still think about it.

    We'd go to the movies and, inevitably, my partner would say: "If that piece of shit could get made, why can't our piece of shit get made?!"

    I know that joke and it is tough. I think things have opened up a bit because the new technologies make it easier for people to make movies on the cheap. But still...

    I probably shouldn't get into this subject but I will anyway. My son has been off in a corner writing screen plays for about 10 years. I have watched from afar, thinking that he is turning into a serious recluse. I've tried to explain to him my views that unless you're just unbelievably lucky, it's hard to lob a screen play into the Universe and have someone pick it up. Therefore, it would be good for him to get connected to the industry, in whatever capacity, to become part of the flow. I doubt that my suggestions have helped him any. But to your point about how much shit gets produced, my guess is that the movies are so geared to the intended market segments and themes which haven't been fully exploited, that the screen writing is the tail end of the process---making it essentially a second thought. And of course, that's why being a recluse is self-defeating. 

    My Son and I had a funny experience in L.A. years ago when I was on my woodworking sabbatical. We took on a day job of moving some movie sets that were to be re-used in a movie called something like, "Cave Girls go Wild". The Director was the absolute caricature of the grade D, slasher movie jerk. After bossing us around for the day, he turned to me and said, "You there, with the beard, ever done any acting?". Then he chiseled us on our pay. We looked at each, laughed our asses off and left. I hadn't thought about it until just now, but maybe a major opportunity was lost.  

    Did you see the two documentaries on PBS about prime time T.V. shows, and the one on Woody Allen? Very interesing. 

    Fun story. Just the one on Woody, which I thought was good. He was cooperative with the project, which helped.

    "I've never done a study of this, but I wouldn't be surprised if all great directors have a lot of stinkers and mediocres in the can."

    I think Stanley Kubrick only made one borderline lousy movie (Eyes Wide Shut), and even that one has some interesting things to recommend it.

    Bah. We obviously rate movies differently (which ain't surprising). I didn't care for A Clockwork Orange, and 2001: A Space Odyssey hasn't stood the test of time very well. (I enjoyed it as a kid, but then watched it again as an adult with my wife, and, well, …)

    Dr. Strangelove, however, holds up just fine.

    "Bah. We obviously rate movies differently (which ain't surprising)."


    Jeez.  Passive-aggressive much?

    How is it passive-aggressive to state that two people rate movies differently? I know it's especially true for me with respect to many dagbloggers as my tastes are somewhat philistine.

    Either you're using an unusual definition of "passive-aggressive", or you've read something into what I wrote that was completely unintentional.

    Probably the latter (I read something into it).  I just thought the "Bah" followed by "it ain't surprising" was a little dismissive of my interjection.

    I would note that, for some reason, "Clockwork" was on one of the movie channels that came with my cable package nearly every single day a few months back.  And, while it thrilled me when I first saw it in a film class in college, it came off as almost camp satire upon later viewings.  My opinion of it has gone down considerably. 

    But I think "2001" is still one of the great achievements in film history.  I feel bad that it's less appreciated now simply because the industry dumped tens of millions of dollars into making space travel seem more "realistic."  None of the Star Wars films or their progeny got nearly as close to the feeling of actually being in space, IMO. 

    One of my friends used to teach a college course in Science Fiction. He starts with 2001, and told me that students always comment on the silence. They've been conditioned by Star Trek and Star Wars to expect a swoosh sound as ships fly through space. So he explains that no atmosphere = no sound.

    Yeah, it's entirely possible that my later viewing of 2001 was tainted by my wife, who's generally less enthusiastic about science fiction in the first place.

    Should movies "stand the test of time" or is it acceptable to just wow the audiences at the time?

    Somehow I think there's place for both. In music we accept this - who would listen to "Frampton Comes Alive" these days?

    I'm with you on this.  Make art for your people.  If it endures, great!

    There's nothing wrong with a movie that doesn't stand the test of time, but if it doesn't, then I don't consider it to be a "classic".

    You might be right. Then again, take a look at all the movies he had a hand in. I do think there's a difference between a good movie and one that has some interesting things in it. Lots of bad movies have interesting things in them.

    Fine.  I'll stick with these guys:

    Leading directors, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Woody Allen, Terry Gilliam, the Coen brothers, Ridley Scott, and George A. Romero,[159] have cited Kubrick as a source of inspiration, and in the case of Spielberg, collaboration.[160][161] On the DVD of Eyes Wide Shut, Steven Spielberg, in an interview, comments on Kubrick that "nobody could shoot a picture better in history" but the way that Kubrick "tells a story is antithetical to the way we are accustomed to receiving stories". Writing in the introduction to a recent edition of Michel Ciment's Kubrick, film director Martin Scorsese notes that most of Kubrick's films were misunderstood and under-appreciated when first released. Then came a dawning recognition that they were masterful works unlike any other films. Perhaps most notably, Orson Welles, one of Kubrick's greatest personal influences and all-time favorite directors, famously said that: "Among those whom I would call 'younger generation' Kubrick appears to me to be a giant."[162] The directors Richard Linklater,[163]Sam Mendes,[164]Joel Schumacher,[165]Taylor Hackford,[166] and Darren Aronofsky[167] have all mentioned Kubrick as having made one of their favorite films.

    Kubrick continues to be cited as a major influence by many directors, including Christopher Nolan,[168]David Fincher,[169]Guillermo del Toro,[170]David Lynch,[171]Lars Von Trier,[172]Michael Mann,[173] and Gaspar Noé.[174] Many filmmakers imitate Kubrick's inventive and unique use of camera movement and framing. For example, several of Jonathan Glazer's music videos contain visual references to Kubrick.[175] The Coen Brother's Barton Fink, in which the hotel itself seems malevolent,[176] contains a hotel hallway Steadicam shot as an homage to The Shining. The storytelling style of their Hudsucker Proxy was influenced by Dr. Strangelove.[177] Director Tim Burton has included a few visual homages to Kubrick in his work, notably using actual footage from 2001: A Space Odyssey in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,[178] and modeling the look of Tweedledee and Tweedledum in his version of Alice in Wonderland on the Grady girls in The Shining.[179] Film critic Roger Ebert also noted that Burton's Mars Attacks! was partially inspired by Dr. Strangelove.[180] The video for The Killers song Bones(2006), Burton's only music video, includes clips from Kubrick's Lolita, as well as other films from the general era.

    Paul Thomas Anderson (who was fond of Kubrick as a teenager)[181] in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, stated "it's so hard to do anything that doesn't owe some kind of debt to what Stanley Kubrick did with music in movies. Inevitably, you're going to end up doing something that he's probably already done before. It can all seem like we're falling behind whatever he came up with."[182] Reviewer William Arnold described Anderson's There Will Be Blood as being stylistically an homage to Kubrick "particularly "2001: A Space Odyssey" – opening with a similar prologue that jumps in stages over the years and using a soundtrack throughout that employs anachronistic music."

    You seem to think I was arguing that Kubrick wasn't a great director. Not at all. I think I was arguing up above that even great directors make lousy films. My larger point was that making movies has so many "moving parts," it's easy for things to go off track or not turn out the way they were intended. So a bad movie, even a bunch of them, is not a sign that the person isn't a great director. IMO.

    But I'm not making a rule out of this. If you think Kubrick only made great films, I certainly have no problem with your saying that. In fact, I'm not entirely sure what you're saying except that you like Kubrick. And so do I.

    Edit: And here we come full circle because, apparently, Kubrick took as one of his influences none other than...Elia Kazan.

    I saw that Kubrick cited Kazan as an influence in the Wikipedia entry I quoted from too, and almost included it in my response.  Quite surprising to me, as they seem like very different film makers.

    I really rate Kubrick higher than most directors because I don't think he had a stinker in his entire ouvre (​Eyes​ excepted).  Of course, part of that was that he made a lot fewer films than most of the great directors.  But that, in turn, was because he was so meticulous in his approach.  To be that obsessed with even the smallest details of his films, and yet never really fall into preciousness, is just an amazing achievement.

    You could be right about this; never really thought about it. Now I'll have to go watch all the Kubrick movies I've never seen-:) That's why I like these exchanges; they make me think about things I don't normally think about.

    I'm not sure I "rate" directors exactly. I just like some, and am less keen on others. For a long time, I found it hard to figure out which pieces of a film were the director's doing. I don't mean to say I didn't know what the director's job is. But if an actor turns in a great performance, is that the director or the actor, or some combination of both, or were the stars aligned?

    I tend to go film by film, rather than taking a broad sweep. One really good or great film will stick with me, and I tend to forgive the lesser efforts.

    For example, I can watch Godfather I over and over and over again. Pretty unusual for me. But I found One From The Heart (if that's the right title) awful and, to quote Hal, unwatchable. But I still think Coppola is a great director.

    I haven't seen all Kubrick's films. 2001. Clockwork. Liked and like both of those. Eyes I skipped. I may have seen pieces of Barry Lyndon. But if I run into a bad Kubrick film, it won't change my view of him.

    Maybe it's because I think every good or great film is a small miracle that's come together at a favored time and place.

    I can't say I'm familiar with any of those works except for A Streetcar Named Desire, which I thought was pretty good. I do know that, before method acting was the "big thing", there was a style of acting where actors were encouraged to be a blank canvas, allowing the audience to use their imagination and project whatever emotion they thought was best onto the actors. Many great directors of the early 20th century employed this method.

    I agree that Splendor in the Grass is essential—I always think about the final scene of Splendor when I'm reminded of any of my old flames. I haven't seen Streetcar or Faces in the Crowd all the way through. They certainly weren't comforting films, but I enjoyed On the Waterfront and Baby Doll.

    Kazan was a close associate of Lee Strasberg in developing method acting, and tended towards films with few clear cut heroes and villains—just complicated situations with conflicted people hurting themselves and the people around them.

    To me, the film version of Streetcar will always be marred by the change in the ending.  The censorship of the day basically demanded that Stanley be punished, which gives the movie an entirely different meaning.  In the play, it is clear that Stanley has won the battle both for his home and his wife. In the movie's ending, Stella leaves Stanley and he is forced to beg for her to return to him, which although it makes for that memorable moment of Stanley screaming, "STELLA!", drastically alters the point the play was making about the savagery of brute force.

    Curious if that's why East of Eden came out so badly - like going to church.

    Excellent essay, Hal. Really enjoyed reading it and understand better why I have never particularly liked "Baby Doll"---it's the leering by Wallach. The so called steaminess , which never really hooked me, just overwhelms the artist's initial vision of the characters and their predicaments.  

    In Casablanca one is never very far away  from the essential entrapments and conflicts the characters find themselves in.

    It's good to know that someone else puts Eastwood on the list. 

    Did you know the following about Baby Doll, summarized well by a commenter at IMDB? I remember reading about it all as a kid in old magazines and being fascinated by all the to-do (because of course, it was about taboos and sex, and that's something I wanted to know about wink) It really was a big battle in early editions of the culture wars, Hollywood vs "family values." My bold:

    When the film was released in 1956, it was enormously controversial for its extremely risqué subject matter. The Legion of Decency condemned the film for its "carnal suggestiveness". Francis Cardinal Spellman condemned the film in a stunning attack from the pulpit of St. Patrick's Cathedral two days before the film opened, saying that the film had been "responsibly judged to be evil in concept" and was certain that it would "exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it", and exhorted all Catholics to refrain from patronizing the film "under pain of sin". Cardinal Spellman's condemnation of the film led to the Legion of Decency's first-ever nationwide boycott of an American-made film produced by a major studio. All over the country, almost 20 million Catholics protested the film and picketed theaters that showed it. The Catholic boycott nearly killed the film; it was cancelled by 77% of theaters scheduled to show it, and it only made a meager $600,000 at the box office. The film was also condemned by Time Magazine, which called it the dirtiest American-made motion picture that had ever been legally exhibited. Surprisingly, despite the film's sordid elements, the Production Code Administration gave it a seal of approval, but only after nearly a year of arguments. This was one of many examples of how the lax attitude of new Code official Geoffrey Shurlock, the successor at the PCA to the strict Catholic militant Joseph Breen, would lead to a schism with the Legon of Decency and the PCA's own downfall over the next few years. After this film, the PCA drifted farther and farther away from its traditional guidelines until it was replaced by the MPAA ratings system in 1968.

    From that, I always thought the film was considered slightly "trashy," one of the first attempts by Hollywood (after the tightening of standards in the 30's) to make money by selling sex; I had no idea it had become more respected by some critics. I also got the impression that Tennessee Williams' work was considered ok for grownups in the theater, but that when his work was picked up by Hollywood, that the "steamy" aspects were played up to cater to what were called "purient interests" at the time. I do think some critics of the time could see this, not that they didn't think Tennessee was willing to play along.

    BTW, Baby Doll nightgowns got the name from the film, and preceded miniskirts by a decade Previously, it was the style for grown women to chose negligees as well as daytime dresses that at least covered their upper legs.

    To some, that film might be the start of the fall of empire cheeky

    I was somehow unaffected by the film when it came out and am not even sure I ever watched it until a much older adult. 

    That was an interesting note that Williams wanted Monroe. I think she would have been better. 

    A couple of years ago I got a CD pack of films based on Williams and the one that grabbed me the most was Night of the Iguana. 

    The thing about critique of movies is that more than any other medium, it is held to the standards of both an entertainment form and an art form.  The theater and novels come in close second in this regard. While it is not a cut and dry distinction, the two standards are different in what they ask a movie (or any other medium).  Consequently, what one consider's "great" acting or film direction has as much to do with how well it entertains one, and this is much more subjective and personal matter than the criterion used to assess the quality of art.

    I would note that the entertainment standards are not somehow less important than the art standards, merely different.  Hamlet we should remember was created with the aim to entertain those of the royal court.  In fact, the tension created by the two aims can lead to a creation which is more powerful than had the artist(s) been attempting to simply entertain or seek artistic expression. 

    My assessment would be that Kazan came from that family of directors who proclivity was to avoid that entertainment/art tension (which I would include directors like Spielberg) and concentrate on the demands of the entertainment standards, using as a platform material that actually dealt with the tension.  I would also say that many movie critics can over time (and driven by the demands of movie reviews which concentrate on the entertainment standards) start to lean towards the entertainment standards in their assessment of the quality of a film and the use of the medium's elements.  Whether that is necessarily a bad thing is an individual choice.  But I think that is why will get someone saying "I think [Kazan's] films from the 1950s, the good ones, are the best-acted films I have ever seen."

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