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Tea and Sympathy

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photo by Jack Manning, NYT I raise my cup of chai to one of the greatest directors the American stage and screen has ever known. Elia Kazan died Saturday in his Manhattan home at the age of 94.

If you’re a longtime fan of the Great White Way, you surely are familiar with his triumphs, which include “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Sweet Bird of Youth,” and “Tea and Sympathy,” to name just a few of the original-cast productions he helmed. Film fans no doubt will recall his cinematic classics, among them the screen adaptation of “Streetcar,” A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, On the Waterfront, Splendor in the Grass, and Viva Zapata. And thespians of all levels will know New York’s legendary Actors Studio, which Tony and Oscar Award-winning Kazan co-founded and where he served for years as co-director.

In 1999, amid a wave of controversy, Kazan was awarded an Academy Award for lifetime achievement. The hubbub concerned the director’s activities during the McCarthy anti-Communist witchhunt of the 1950s, which still leaves a nasty taste in many progressives’ mouths. As the New York Times reports:

[I]n 1952 Mr. Kazan angered many of his friends and colleagues when he acknowledged before the House Un-American Activities Committee that he had been a member of the Communist Party from 1934 to 1936 and gave the committee the names of eight other party members. He had previously refused to do so, and his naming of names prompted many people in the arts, including those who had never been Communists, to excoriate him for decades.

Asked why he had identified others, he cited a “specious reasoning which has silenced many liberals” that ran like this: “You may hate the Communists, but you must not attack them or expose them, because if you do you are attacking the right to hold unpopular opinions.”

“I’d had every good reason to believe the party should be driven out of its many hiding places and into the light of scrutiny, but I’d never said anything because it would be called `red-baiting,’ ” he wrote years later. “The `horrible, immoral thing’ that I did I did out of my own true self.”

I certainly do not agree with his position, but then, I don’t hate Communists. My heart still goes out to the many artists who had their lives and careers shattered because of those dark days 50 years ago and because of people like Kazan.

At the same time, I believe in credit where it is due. Elia Kazan was a brilliant, innovative craftsperson who, at least in terms of his art, added much to the canon of American theater and film. I doubt we will ever see another like him. For that, I raise my cup. Rest in peace, Mr. Director.

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  • Steve Rhodes

    PBS just aired a documentary on Arthur Miller and Kazan. I imagine it will be out on DVD (and some stations might repeat it now).

  • Eric Olsen

    An amazing assortment of credits vs ratting out your friends – now that’s complexity. Thanks Nat!