Not since Francois Truffaut took on Alfred Hitchcock in the 1960s has there been such an illuminating exchange in print between a director and a critical fan. In Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films, filmmaker and writer Jeff Young interviews the renowned and controversial director Elia Kazan over an extended period, beginning the interviews in 1971 as the director neared the end of his career. The publication of Kazan's autobiography contributed to the delays this book encountered in seeing print.
Kazan's career as a movie director began with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1945 and ended with The Last Tycoon in 1976. His total output of 19 films include the classics East of Eden, which introduced James Dean to the world, and On the Waterfront, which similarly introduced Marlon Brando. Kazan was also a prolific novelist and theater director. Unfortunately, his achievements as a director are often eclipsed by the controversy over his naming names testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy days of the 1950s. Many of Hollywood's liberal members, such as actor Nick Nolte, sat on their hands in protest during the applause for Kazan as he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1999 Academy Awards. Young is unabashed in his admiration for Kazan's work. His films moved me more than anyone else's, he writes. I was transported, taken into the worlds they depicted, made privy to the inner tensions, conflicts, and feelings of Kazan's characters, in whom I'd always found some part of myself. . . . Kazan's films both forced and enabled me to think about my life and to view the world around me as I never had before. This was artistry of a very high order. In an age in which artistry seems replaced by gimmickry, and in which computer-generated worlds replace the landscapes of the human soul, an artist like Kazan stands as a reminder of what great cinema is all about. Kazan's greatest strength as a director understanding acting and how to bring out the best in actors is increasingly becoming a lost art. Reading this book is inspirational, because it transports the reader back into a value system that needs to be rediscovered by the next generation of filmmakers. This book is not merely an homage by an admiring fan. Instead it is an exchange between two filmmakers on the art of filmmaking, which forces the director into a searching examination of his work, blemishes and all. With a chapter on each of Kazan's films, the interviewer pushes the director to provide reasons for doing what he did, even when they are in disagreement. As I said, all of my sentiments are diametrically opposed to yours. Nothing you've said changes that, Young interjects during a discussion of Kazan's incriminating Congressional testimony. At another point, when Kazan tries to defend his direction of Gentleman's Agreement, admittedly one of his weaker works, Young challenges Kazan by saying, “I disagree. I think the details were not done well at all. The party scene at Celeste Holm’s apartment is full of cliches and stereotypes. When Kazan tries to defend his direction of Gentleman's Agreement, admittedly one of his weaker works, Young challenges Kazan by saying, I disagree. I think the details were not done well at all. The party scene at Celeste Holm's apartment is full of cliches and stereotypes. With this frank, sometimes confrontational, but always admiring style, Young brings out the best thoughts from the fertile mind of this great filmmaker. It is invaluable for filmmakers wanting an inside look into the reasoning that goes behind the thousands of decisions made in the creative filmmaking process. After you've read the book, you'll want to rent the movies.
David Hinton is the dean of Watkins Institute College of Art and Design.