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Last Updated: Monday, 29 September, 2003, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Will Kazan's films outlive the controversy?

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Rod Steiger and Marlon Brandon in On the Waterfront
On the Waterfront helped revolutionise screen acting, critics say
Elia Kazan, the director behind such Hollywood classics as On the Waterfront and East of Eden, become a figure of hate for Tinseltown's left because he named eight people in a 1952 Communist witch hunt.

Some people never forgave Kazan for his actions.

A Communist himself in the 1930s, until the actions of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin forced him to rethink, Kazan was originally asked in 1952 provide names of fellow members of the left-leaning Group Theater he had been a member of.

Kazan was threatened with being blacklisted himself if he did not provide names.

The director declined, but then had a change of heart and gave the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) - an anti-Communist witch hunt led by Senator John McCarthy - the names of eight of his colleagues.

Ovation refused

They entered the Hollywood blacklist and many would not work again for decades.

Kazan had told his good friend, playwright Arthur Miller, that "I hate the Communists and have for many years and don't feel right about giving up my career to defend them. I will give up my film career if it is in the interests of defending something I believe in, but not this".

Kazan's career would indeed survive this divisive time - though its effects would be felt for years.

Kazan with his Oscar in 1999
Kazan's 1999 Oscar caused controversy

At the 1999 Academy Awards, some Hollywood stars - including Ed Harris and Nick Nolte - refused to give the director a standing ovation because of it.

But now that the veteran director is dead, what will remain in the memory - the controversy or the canon?

Matt Mueller, the editor of UK movie magazine Total Film, believes that "to the average Joe in the street, the controversy doesn't mean that much".

"That kind of thing affects Hollywood rather than anyone else. People there thought he was betraying the industry."

'Amazing' plays

Mr Mueller said Kazan was the "primary exponent" of the method acting style that Marlon Brando made famous in On the Waterfront.

"Together they changed screen acting from the mannered style of the 1020s to 40s, into something much more full of heart. On the Waterfront is undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever."

Mr Mueller said the fact that Warren Beatty - a committed Hollywood liberal - had joined those giving Kazan an ovation at the Oscars showed he should be remembered for his work and not his deeds.

James Dean in East of Eden
James Dean was in East of Eden, directed by Kazan

He said Kazan was also a celebrated theatre director. "He was known as being a creative stage director, not just getting people to go from A to B. His plays were supposed to be amazing to watch, very visual."

Matt Wolf, the London theatre critic for American magazine Variety, agreed, adding that it was ironic a director known for a social conscience had been involved in a moral scandal.

"He was a man whose films known for social verisimilitude and known for their social conscience. It is a paradox that this socially-conscious film-maker was the victim of a corrupt conscience.

"I think we are pretty good now at separating the life from the art. While Kazan's action at the time may have been questionable, he was a truly great film and theatre director. He had great success in both mediums."

Hollywood director Kazan dies
29 Sep 03  |  Entertainment
Obituary: Elia Kazan
29 Sep 03  |  Entertainment
Kazan award divides Oscars audience
22 Mar 99  |  Entertainment
Elia Kazan: Forgive and forget?
21 Mar 99  |  Entertainment

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