Thursday, May 17, 2007

Elia Kazan: Enough Already

Not content with his career as a political prognosticator and analyst, Mark Steyn makes occasional forays into film criticism. The death of Bernard Gordon, a blacklisted screenwriter of the 1950s, reminded Steyn of an old grievance, and led to his reprinting a 2003 Atlantic Monthly defense of Elia Kazan. "The arts have little time for anti-communists," declares Steyn.

The mechanism by which Elia Kazan became a pitiable victim of Hollywood liberalism puzzles the Siren no end. Here is a list of the films Kazan managed to complete after testifying before HUAC.

The Last Tycoon (1976)
The Visitors (1972)
The Arrangement (1969)
America, America (1963)
Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Wild River (1960)
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Baby Doll (1956)
East of Eden (1955)
On the Waterfront (1954)

Here is an abridged list of awards that Kazan was either nominated for or won subsequent to his HUAC testimony.

Academy Awards
1964 Nominated, Best Director, for America, America (1963); Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, for America, America (1963)
1956 Nominated, Best Director, East of Eden (1955)
1955 Won, Best Director, for On the Waterfront (1954)

Berlin International Film Festival
1996 Honorary Golden Berlin Bear
1960 Nominated, Golden Berlin Bear, for Wild River (1960)

Cannes Film Festival
1972 Nominated, Golden Palm, for The Visitors (1972)
1955 Won, Best Dramatic Film, East of Eden (1955); Nominated, Golden Palm, for East of Eden (1955)

Directors Guild of America, USA
1987 Lifetime Achievement Award
1983 DGA Honorary Life Member Award
1964 Nominated, DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, for America, America (1963)
1962 Nominated, DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, for Splendor in the Grass (1961) 1958 Nominated, DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, for A Face in the Crowd (1957)
1956 Nominated, DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, for East of Eden (1955)
1955 Won, DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, for On the Waterfront (1954)

Golden Globes, USA
1964 Won, Golden Globe Best Motion Picture Director, for America, America (1963)
1957 Won, Golden Globe Best Motion Picture Director, for Baby Doll (1956)
1955 Won, Golden Globe Best Director, for On the Waterfront (1954)

National Board of Review, USA
1996 Won, Special Citation for lifetime achievement in direction.

Venice Film Festival
1955 Won, OCIC Award, for On the Waterfront (1954)
1954 Won, Italian Film Critics Award, for On the Waterfront (1954); Silver Lion, for On the Waterfront (1954); Nominated, Golden Lion, for On the Waterfront (1954)

Writers Guild of America, USA
1964 Nominated, WGA Award (Screen) Best Written American Drama, for America, America (1963)

What an odd parallel universe is inhabited by Mr. Steyn and those like him, one where Kazan's accomplishments are considered incomplete because Hollywood failed to grant him a 10-minute standing ovation, and didn't get rid of those pesky protesters outside the theater. The honorary Oscar was voted unanimously. The Siren watched the Oscar ceremony and saw Kazan accept his award. The television cameras showed her at least half in the auditorium were on their feet and applauding. She heard no boos. But the presence of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro onstage, Warren Beatty on his feet applauding, that means nothing to Steyn if Ed Harris and Nick Nolte and some other weenie libs are sitting quietly in their seats.

For Mr. Steyn and the professional indignation specialists over at Libertas, it will never be enough that Kazan went on to have a distinguished, artistically fulfilling and lucrative career after his testimony. He must be loved, not despite, but because of his having named names.

Well, to quote something Samuel Goldwyn probably never said, include me out. The Siren loves Kazan's films. As a man? Let us hear Irene Mayer Selznick on that matter. She produced A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. At the time Kazan was called before the committee she was his close friend, and they were working to produce a play that later flopped. She thought her left-leaning Hollywood friends were exaggerating the danger; Kazan in turn told her to read I.F. Stone and the Daily Compass, showing her a picture of a camp allegedly being readied for dissidents. He told Selznick that he would never testify, that he was prepared to work in Europe if necessary.

That was brave talk, and I admired him for it. To those in comparable trouble, some bigshots included, he gave advice and strength. ...

One evening during our brief run I was approached in a restaurant by Gadge's movie agent, who told me that Gadge was a hero and I would be proud of him; all I had to do was pick up the bulldog edition of the Times.

I read the paper with total disbelief. My head reeled. The unimaginable was there in print: Gadge had done an about-face politically. He had caved in and named names. He also had bought a quarter-page for an ad, defending what he had done and exhorting others to follow his lead. ...

However much he had wanted to stick to his principles, he simply didn't. He let down those who believed in him. I was the least of his victims, I only lost some illusions.

I made no effort to get in touch. From then on, when we met, [Kazan's wife] Molly cut me dead. Gadge was tentative. For years his action estranged him from a lot of people he cared about, and I include myself among them. Some never forgave him. He was, on the whole, the man who was least forgiven, because he had been the epitome of courage and strength. After Molly died, he and I drifted back together and we're friends today--I think.

As Jacob Weisberg pointed out in Slate, no recent revelations, including the Venona transcripts, improve "the case that Hollywood Communism was a significant threat to democracy." Steyn may or may not realize that he would look ridiculous arguing that the crowds yelling "Tovarich! Tovarich!" at the end of Action in the North Atlantic were a danger to our American way of life. Perhaps that is why, despite asserting that aiding the blacklist was no sin, he works so hard to absolve Congress (and, far from coincidentally, the party running it at the time) from blame:

Nor is the fact that Hollywood’s belief in its own heroism derives from a moment of colossal Hollywood cowardice any obstacle. The blacklist “victims” weren’t blacklisted by the government but by the studios–Warner Brothers, Paramount, Disney–the same folks who run Hollywood today.

This rather elides the fact that the first blacklist was established the day after the Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt of Congress. Implying the government had nothing to do with it is disingenuous at best. “Placement of primary political and moral blame on HUAC for what happened to people during the blacklist is obviously correct," wrote Art Eckstein at that bastion of Bolshevism, Front Page Magazine. And whence this alleged Hollywood "belief in its own heroism" that Steyn condemns? As Selznick makes clear above, the hell of the era was the spectacle of friends and colleagues turning upon one another like rats in a trap.

The blacklist ultimately did no one any good--neither those who testified, nor those who refused, nor those who avoided all involvement, nor those who were just out in the hinterlands buying tickets. Certainly if Steyn were a real cinephile, as opposed to an ideologue, he would realize that the sadly truncated filmographies of people like Marsha Hunt, Dorothy Comingore and Zero Mostel are the real blot on the film world, not a tepid ovation. Kazan went on to flourish. By testifying he was, quite obviously, trying to save his own career. As Weisberg says, that doesn't make him a villain.

It doesn't make him a martyr, either.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Kiss Me, Kate (1953)

Well, I am disgracefully late for my contribution to the Shakespeare Blog-a-Thon sponsored by Peter Nelhaus of Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee. Please check out the links:

The Shamus investigates Branagh's Henry V

Flickhead - The Bard vs. The Shatner

Odienator discusses actors who should not do Shakespeare

Edward Copeland covers the book The Shakespeare Riots

Daniel Eisenberg on Olivier's Henry V

Noel Vera on Chimes at Midnight

Several reasons for this tardiness, including a full schedule and a six-month-old who just doesn't seem to have the proper appreciation for cinema as an art. But the Siren thinks the real problem was the subject she chose.

Now understand, I love Kiss Me Kate. Its score is a thing of beauty, ever witty and gorgeous, rewarding me each time I listen to it. And George Sidney's film of it is wonderful too, despite the Bowdlerization of a lot of the original lyrics. (And yet, they kept a gleeful and fully choreographed chorus of "Tom, Dick or Harry" that has Ann Miller and the boys kicking up their heels and singing, "a dick a dick, a dick a dick ..." Censors. Is surgical brain-cell removal a requirement of the job, or what?)

Anyway, so what's the problem? Shakespeare. That's what. The Taming of the Shrew.

The two most famous couples in screen history, Pickford-Fairbanks and Taylor-Burton, both chose this decidedly unpleasant and (go ahead, tell me I'm wrong, I won't believe you) minor Shakespeare as a co-starring vehicle. After the 1967 Zeffirelli version, which the Siren has seen only in part, the Burtons survived another seven years as husband and wife. That's not counting their bizarre remarriage, which the Siren has never had the energy to analyze. Pickford and Fairbanks were on the train to Reno, so to speak, when they made their 1929 version. The Siren did see that one, eons ago, but it isn't particularly memorable and has an odd combination of silent style and sound dialogue. (I don't remember the legendary credit, "With Additional Dialogue by Sam Taylor," and at least one source claims it isn't there.) Mary and Doug seem so played out that they don't even appear to enjoy throwing things at one another.

It's tempting to psychoanalyze these two couples and their choice of material, but it was probably no more than that Taming is a comedy with two strong, memorable leads who get just about equal screen time. Some of the poetry is lovely, although it is far, far from his most beautiful play in that respect, and has a great deal of prose dialogue anyway. But it's basically a long celebration of spousal abuse. Maybe you believe that Shakespeare was actually sending up contemporary attitudes--I don't. I think we are really supposed to believe in the "taming." And while the Siren is pretty darned good at laying aside her modern political sensibilities when watching old stuff, she can't get past that. There's nowhere to go, nothing else to watch. The other characters are barely present. It's Petruchio and Kate, all the way.

Kiss Me Kate is a lot easier to stomach. The backstage "taming" goes back and forth, with Fred Graham (Howard Keel) initially having the upper hand, then Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) gets control, then Fred, then Lilli again. And in the end, when Lilli comes back onstage, it's a free choice. She could get on that train with her dimwitted Texas beau if she wanted--but instead she returns not only to Fred, but to their shared careers. In Shakespeare's world, however shrewish Kate may be, she has to submit. She has no other option and no way out.

So, without further ado, the Siren leaves The Taming of the Shrew in the dust, and goes on to pick out some additional details she loves in Kiss Me Kate. In no particular order:

1. Some of the best lyrics Cole Porter ever wrote, even if they did over-sanitize them for the censors. (I do miss my favorite "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" line from the Broadway version: "If she says your behavior is heinous/Kick her right in the Coriolanus!" Yes, I realize that bit is not PC either, but it's one hell of a rhyme.)

2. Ann Miller's tap-dancing, always a treat, is spectacular--in "Too Darn Hot" she makes you forget the missing verses.

3. Bob Fosse and Carol Haney, dancing to his choreography in "From This Moment On" (a song that was not in the show). There are no words for the coolness of that minute and a half. The whole movie screeches to a halt, as you think, where did that come from? My god, who are those dancers? How do I get to see more of them? You feel like you just watched something revolutionary, and indeed you did.

4. Kathryn Grayson's eyeshadow during the stage sequences. Don't try this at home. (Alas, I could not find a good picture. But think Divine, if Divine were a pretty soprano.)

5. Howard Keel's eyeliner.

6. Cole Porter, magically straightened out. I have seen footage of Porter and have recordings of him singing, and Ron Randell is so far from real life they might as well have cast John Wayne. Or Cary Grant, who did play Cole Porter in the biopic Night and Day. (Legend has it that Porter suggested casting Grant as a joke, only to have the studio take him seriously. Which is why the Siren frequently jokes that she wants Monica Belluci to star in her future biopic.)

The movie was originally released in 3-D. The Siren didn't know that the first couple of times she saw Kiss Me Kate, and she spent a great deal of time trying to figure out bizarre shots like Miller smacking her scarf at the camera, or Grayson throwing a goblet at it. Maybe someday I will have a chance to see this one in its full 3-D glory.

P.S. There is plenty of nice Web writing about Kiss Me Kate as a musical. The Siren especially likes Alan Vanneman's piece, from Bright Lights Film Journal.