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lisa dombrowski Introduction W hat do we talk about when we talk about Elia Kazan? We talk about his work. As an actor, director, and writer, Kazan’s groundbreaking contributions to American art and culture span over five decades and continue to permeate our popular consciousness . His participation in the activism of the Group Theatre, promulgation of the Method via the Actors Studio, and acclaimed direction of Broadway milestones such as The Skin of Our Teeth, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof situate him as the most influential director of midcentury American theater. With films such as the adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955), and Splendor in the Grass (1961), Kazan made an equally indelible mark on cinema.Between 1948 and 1964 he was nominated for a Best Director Academy Award five times and won twice. His name is repeatedly linked with those of his many collaborators, including the era’s defining writers (Tennessee Williams,Arthur Miller,John Steinbeck,Budd Schulberg) and stars (Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Warren Beatty). Kazan’s films engage seriously with the social problems and conflicts of their day,but their timeless appeals to feelings of alienation,longing,and rebellion return them to us again and again—so frequently, in fact, that their oft-quoted scenes have become ripe for parody. While my undergraduate students—all born over a decade after Kazan’s last film was made—still root for Dean’s misjudged, mopey Cal in East of Eden, they are also quick to laugh when they catch Peter Boyle and John Belushi trading lines from On the Waterfront as “Dueling Brandos” on an old Saturday Night Live rerun, or when Homer Simpson embodies the boorishness of Stanley Kowalski in the much-loved 1992 The Simpsons episode“A Streetcar Named Marge.” They may never have seen A Streetcar Named Desire, but at the drop of a dime they will all yell“Stellllaaaaaaa!” We also talk about Kazan’s life—in particular, his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (huac) in 1952. Kazan x Introduction was a member of the Communist Party for about eighteen months in the early 1930s while working with the Group Theatre, but he came to view Communism with suspicion and disgust after the Party began dictating artistic terms to its Group members and subjected him to a show trial. When Kazan was called to testify before huac during its investigation into the alleged Communist infiltration of Hollywood, he initially balked at providing the names of former associates who were Party members but then changed his mind. Although Kazan remained a committed liberal, his testimony and the subsequent advertisement he published in the New York Times defending his decision to name names marked him as a traitor in the eyes of many on the Left, guilty of complicity and betrayal, careerism and pride. Decades later, Kazan reflected on his decision to testify in interviews and his startlingly frank 1988 autobiography Elia Kazan: A Life, revealing his evolving and frequently mixed feelings about huac. A Life did little to satisfy Kazan’s critics—as evidenced by the controversy surrounding his receipt of an honorary Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1999—while also exposing him to additional charges of disloyalty—of a marital sort this time. From adulterous escapades in alleyways, described pages into the first chapter, through the tale of bedding Marilyn Monroe on the night after she decided to marry Joe DiMaggio, A Life opened all aspects of Kazan’s private life to scrutiny. The man was an obsessive observer, analyzer, and recorder of human behavior—especially his own. Was his autobiography an attempt to honestly and bravely account for his thoughts and actions—however flawed they sometimes were—or to preempt and thus deflect the criticism of others, so as to appear above it all? All too often,what we talk about when we talk about Kazan comes down simply to the question one film scholar asked me:“Are you for or against?” We’ve been talking about Kazan for over half a century now. Is there anything left to say? Plenty. In the wake of the opening of Kazan’s personal archive to researchers, the centenary of his birth, the accompanying film retrospectives, and recent books, now is the time to revisit Kazan, and in particular his cinematic legacy. The topics of conversation...


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