photo manipulation by nacrowe
i always find it interesting how as a child you are able to identify quality in the art you are taken by without regard for things like context. as a pre-teen having just arrived in NIGERIA, i saw NICHOLAS RAY's iconic REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (WARNER BROS, 1955) and, like everyone else for several generations, was immediately hooked on JAMES DEAN and his emotional performance as a troubled young person attempting to find his way in a hostile new environment.
it felt like my situation. in the world of REBEL the locale was SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA hooliganism with knives, fast cars and macho posturing. for me it was living on a remote compound surrounded by the racist redneck offspring of TEXAS and LOUISIANA oilmen where the weapons were words and micro-aggressions against our AFRICAN hosts. it was hard to deal with.
after watching REBEL i quickly sought out ELIA KAZAN's cinemascope epic retelling of JOHN STEINBECK's CAIN and ABEL-inspired EAST OF EDEN (WARNER BROS, 1955) which similarly found DEAN's character a trouble miscreant in search of identity. the film finds his character seeking out his mother, the owner of a gambling-and-lord-knows-what-else establishment on the wrong side of town, who is the polar opposite of his preaching, holier-than-thou father, only to be rejected.
what i found compelling about the work of DEAN, then and now was his ability to capture the emotional integrity of a scene. in true METHOD ACTING fashion his acting was more about being, it was more about reacting. i appreciate tons of other actors that have followed his lead over the years including JOHNNY DEPP, DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, SEAN PENN, EDWARD NORTON, JOAQUIN PHEONIX and DENNIS HOPPER as well as his peers like MARLON BRANDO and MONTGOMERY CLIFT. what separates those two perfect touchstone performances was his intensity.
because of that he has been my favorite actor since childhood.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
in an age of CANCEL CULTURE and ideological purity tests that border on the insane, i think it is as crucial a time as ever to revisit the figure of legendary film director ELIA KAZAN and his complicated legacy during the HOUSE UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE hearings of the 1950s. for those unfamiliar with MCCARTHYISM, there was a wave of fear, much like our own current frenzied political climate, in the immediate post-WWII period related to our global rivalry with the SOVIETS dubbed the COLD WAR. there was always the threat of violence and massive attacks of the nuclear variety but ultimately it never got hot (i.e. conventional military conflict).
this state of affairs found the UNITED STATES turn in on itself and attempt to weed out anyone of note in major industries (politics, entertainment, journalism, etc.) who may have ever dabbled or supported socialist causes. it should be noted that in the immediate aftermath of the THE GREAT DEPRESSION in the 1930s, anyone with half a brain questioned the long-term viability of MARKET CAPITALISM.
this purity test famously heralded by WISCONSIN senator EUGENE MCCARTHY (who not ironically shared a counsel, ROY COHN, with DONALD TRUMP) was highly destructive to AMERICAN ideals of freedom and jurisprudence and resulted in ten JEWISH career professionals (screenwriters, directors, producers) known as the HOLLYWOOD TEN being BLACKLISTED and publicly vilified due to hearsay and innuendo. many film historians believe the SOCIALIST-bating histrionics was just a public smokescreen to ostracize JEWS in positions of influence, which marks this as a very dark period in our history.
KAZAN is famous for being a deft film director who specialized in character-driven narratives that touched on the struggles of working people (A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, ON THE WATERFRONT, EAST OF EDEN). his career dovetailed with the rise of METHOD ACTING and benefited from his collaborations with screen legends such as MARLON BRANDO and JAMES DEAN. basically he is a director of the highest order and his films are admired, studied and dissected by aspiring and working directors and random film junkies (like me) to date. he also dabbled in socialist circles in the 30s and was even a member of the communist party in NYC very briefly during that period.
now the names of members of were already known to the HUAC committee, but he was pressured to name names. and unfortunately he did. to this day he is a controversial figure for crossing that line and even during his acceptance of an award at the OSCARS over 50 years later, actors still turned their back in full view of the cameras. its a touchy subject and one that will forever be.
we like to think that people will make good choices in the face of tyranny and injustice, even at the expense to one's own self. fellow immigrant director BILLY WILDER (DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SUNSET BOULEVARD, SOME LIKE IT HOT) did such. he told HUAC to stuff themselves and he rightfully celebrated for such, but i think realistically the world is imperfect and people make imperfect decisions in imperfect situations.
did KAZAN deserve to be a pariah the rest of his life in the HOLLYWOOD community? i don't know, but i tend to side with empathy.
the people i find no empathy for are those that deliberately foster a divisive climate based on self-serving considerations such as power, which is definitely the case with MCCARTHY, COHN, TRUMP and all of his sycophants. perhaps a day will come when the waves of hatred will subside and our national wounds will have healed, but these people will still deserve our scorn and not those that got caught up in the hailstorm against their will. just saying.