To hear his filmmaker son tell it, the late, great Elia Kazan had uncommon lifelong appreciation for three of his own special projects: the iconic labor-union hymn On the Waterfront (1954), the acute indictment of television-bred fame featuring Andy Griffith as A Face in the Crowd (1957) and the director's highly personal reflection of the immigrant experience, America, America (1963).
"Those three movies, he watched every week," Nicolas Kazan told the April 21 gathering in Theater 1 of the Directors Guild of America to commemorate the work of the DGA's Special Projects Committee. " 'Stick around,' he would say. 'Tomorrow, we're running A Face in the Crowd.' ... Of A Streetcar Named Desire, he said, 'Too much talking; I could have told this story in 20 minutes.' "
One concept to which the elder Kazan never gave short shrift was that of the Special Projects Committee, which he invented and nurtured during the stewardship of former DGA President Robert Wise in the early 1970s. "This very idea of Special Projects was the inspiration of Elia Kazan," the committee's current chair, Jeremy Kagan, told the gathering prior to a screening of A Face in the Crowd.
Kagan then quoted from Kazan's much anthologized 1973 talk "On What Makes a Director," inventorying the vocations and attributes that blend into the creative force and nature of directing on a film or television set. Kazan's words, channeled through Kagan, reiterated the specialties: "...a poet of the camera ... an outfielder for his legs ... the cunning of a trader in a Baghdad bazaar ... animal trainer ... great host ... the kindness of an old-fashioned mother who forgives all .... a jewel thief ... the blarney of a PR man ... A very thick skin. A very sensitive soul. Simultaneously. ... fortitude of a saint ... pure doggedness ... above all; courage... One final thing. The ability to say, 'I am wrong...'
The fact of the matter was that Kazan had to have been right most of the time when it came to making movies. He won the DGA Award for Best Feature Film Directing for On the Waterfront and Academy Awards for directing it and Gentlemen's Agreement (1947).
He also won an honorary Oscar in 1999 and the DGA's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. Kazan won over the critics too. Among them is Guild member Richard Schickel, whose forthcoming book and documentary projects are on Kazan.
"[Kazan] took the work seriously, but never took himself all that seriously," Schickel said, and added that America, America was Kazan's favorite film, because it was "full of the promise of America," a concept that "influenced everything he did." Schickel emphasized that Kazan never lost the conviction that an immigrant kid like himself could rise to prominence.
Kazan had influence beyond filmmaking per se in several ways. One of which was co-founding the Actors Studio in 1948 with Robert Lewis, which led to the changing of approach to acting techniques on a worldwide basis and the rise of Method performing, particularly via Marlon Brando and James Dean in Kazan films.
The Special Projects Committee is another influential innovation. As the "film generation" of the 1960s evolved, Kazan envisioned art-house programming brought under the umbrella activities of the Guild to showcase its members' talents and accomplishments. The thorny auteur theory
"It seems to me that the Guild is essentially an organization of artists," Kazan said during the formulation of Special Projects. "It has an obligation to inspire its every member to better work.... The Guild keeps the pride of its members alive, and that pride is the pride in their craft and their work, in their profession."
One of the functions of Special Projects has always been the obligation to keep alive the memories of directors' perhaps lesser heralded stepchildren. Kazan has been widely praised for his roundly regarded great films, including Viva Zapata! (1952), East of Eden (1955) and Splendor in the Grass (1961). But one of his later pictures that revisionist critics champion as among his best, even though it was not a great hit in its time, is A Face in the Crowd.
"This is an enormously prescient film," said DGA director member Schickel, also a longtime film critic of Time magazine. "Television had reached critical mass in this country. One of the reasons that Kazan loved this film so much was that it had as its central figure this attractive, wonderful figure who had never been known as an actor. Andy Griffith had been a singer of pop songs and yet to be sheriff of Mayberry. One of the characteristics of Elia Kazan was this belief that anybody could act. It was just a matter of inspiring them and letting them rip."
Mike Nichols on Elia Kazan's Classic Film
"There are circumstances which force you into making difficult choices. People don't realize what "difficult" means. It means that either way there are penalties, costs you have to pay." Elia Kazan said of his film, On the Waterfront. The DGA Special Events Committee, in association with the Tribeca Film Institute and Frances Kazan, screened the classic at the DGA's New York Theater. Afterward, director Mike Nichols shared his thoughts on Kazan's masterpiece.
"When you see it now, and what I've known about Kazan is that he's a master at all of it," Nichols said. "He's a master at staging. Every moment of this film, which is true I think of every moment of all the films that he directed, is expressed physically," Nichols said. "He defined the role of the director as well as I think anyone had."
According to Nichols, early in the process of making On the Waterfront Kazan considered Frank Sinatra for the role of Terry Malloy, but eventually chose Marlon Brando because he felt the actor would be more vulnerable. The decision resulted in one of the most legendary performances in American cinema. "This guy did his work," said Nichols of Brando's performance. "He learned a Brooklyn accent, he swallowed it, forgot about it, it was there. He obviously worked out, he obviously learned all the footwork that a boxer does. It was all encouraged by and helped along by Kazan."
Nichols stressed the role of intense preparation beforehand as a way for the actor to always be in the moment. He alluded to a signature scene from the film between Brando and Eva Marie Saint as a perfect example. "They're walking; it's their first conversation. She drops her glove. He leans over to get it. He picks it up. But he's Brando so that's not enough. He puts it on and then she takes it back, and all this was an improvisation in the scene because she dropped her glove. Be here now, that's more important than emotion."
When asked for his thoughts on Kazan's camerawork and how one learns to use a camera, Nichols compared it learning the rules of a new language. "You pay a lot of attention to grammar when you start to write. But by the time you've been working and speaking and writing for a while, you don't think about grammar anymore. It's in your head, it's you and that's pretty much what happens with the camera," he said. "Kazan was very expressive with where he put the camera. And it was always to serve the actor, to serve the behavior. What's happening is premiere to what you're looking at. That's what the director's job is. That's what you find redefined and transformed by Kazan ... what he brought to American expression in theater and films is still alive, is still important to many of us in many ways."