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New Yorker on Kazan ’30

Be sure to read this interesting New Yorker retrospective on Elia Kazan ’30’s life and career, including the following anecdote about his admission to and time at Williams:

Through his teen-age years, Kazan wrote in his autobiography, “A Life,” published in 1988, he had “one enduring friend,” his mother. He was Athena’s “special child” and her confidant. “We entered a secret life together, which Father never breached,” he wrote. “That is where the conspiracy began. Perhaps I represented what she thought she might have been if she’d not been swallowed alive by a marriage.” Unbeknownst to George Kazan, who wanted his son to enter the family business, Kazan was encouraged by his mother and a middle-school teacher to take up the liberal arts. When Athena notified her husband that Elia had been accepted by the prestigious Williams College, he knocked her to the ground. After graduating from Williams cum laude, Kazan told his father that he wanted to become an actor. “Didn’t you look in the mirror?” his father replied.

Kazan was not handsome: he had a scrawny body, a long nose, and a craggy face that marked him as foreign. At Williams, his otherness fuelled both his sense of inferiority and his tenacity. “I was what you would now call a freak, someone who is out of things,” he said. He walked around the campus with his eyes down, speaking only when spoken to, and he washed dishes and waited on tables at the fraternities, which he was not invited to join. “Baby, you’re a nigger, too,” his friend James Baldwin once told him. An outsider in a Wasp enclave, Kazan developed an appetite for revenge and its corollary, vindictive triumph. “I . . . wanted what they had: their style, their looks, their clothes, their cars, their money, the jobs they had waiting for them,” he wrote in “A Life.” “I wanted all that, and I wanted it soon.”

I also enjoyed a subsequent passage in which Kazan is described as a “cocksman of note.”  And no, that is not referring to his rowing prowess … I didn’t know that Kazan, errr, “dated” Marilyn Monroe.  Kazan: noted cocksman, former Communist turned namer-of-names, multiple Academy Award winner, actor, mentor to Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando, Monroe flame, Actor’s Studio founder … love him or hate him, he is the original most interesting man in the world.


Williamstown Film Festival … (with bonus Ephs-in-film update)

The Williamstown Film Festival begins today!  Lots of interesting events in the line-up, but this one stands out for me:

WFF returns to MASS MoCA on Friday night, October 30th with La Nave de Los Monstruos (The Ship of Monsters), a Mexican sci-fi musical in which Venusian women land on Earth in search of men. Ethel, America’s leading rock-infused string quartet, accompanies the film with a live original score. In honor of Halloween, a costume contest will precede the film.

[By the way, women of Venus, I live in Washington D.C., and I’m ready to be your intergalactic love slave … oh, and how much must it suck to be in American’s second-leading rock infused string-quartet … “oh, you rock the strings?  Sweet, you must be in ‘Ethel'” … “ummm, well, actually …” — awkward!]

Other events of note: Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, etc.) speaking at The Clark, and a lunch seminar with James Ivory at The Orchards (and really, could an event featuring Victorian-period-drama-maven Ivory be held anywhere else in Williamstown; if tea and crumpets aren’t on the menu, it will be criminal).

Kudos to Steve Lawson ’71 for making this happen …

Speaking of Williams and film, does any college without a film program have a group of alumni directors that can rival this group of Ephs: Elia Kazan, John Frankenheimer, John Sayles?  I’d be surprised … (and how sweet is Sayles’ webpage?!).  Browsing Sayles’ prolific IMDB page, I was pleased to discover that he wrote Battle Beyond the Stars, an especially corny entry in the-post Star Wars explosion of low budget underdog sci-fi movies, and one I watched at least 25 times before I turned 10.  Space Cowboy, anyone?  Anyone?

In other film news, notable Eph actors Monique Curnen ’92 (starring in Legacy opposite Stringer Bell, err, Idris Elba), Lee Hom Wang ’98 (featured in Jackie Chan’s upcoming Chinese-language war movie) and David Straitharn ’70 (too many wicked-cool sounding films to fully list — can you find the connection to Amherst in one of them — but Howl, The Tempest, Odysseus in America, and Challenger all figure to be high-profile releases) all have intriguing projects on the horizon … I am particularly looking forward to Challenger.  Ask anyone in my generation the first news event that they clearly recall, and eight out of ten will list the Challenger disaster.


Unaware of his existence

Did you know that Elia Kazan ’31 was a work-study student? In an essay just published by his friend Budd Schulberg, a description of the college-aged Kazan:

A Greek born in Turkey, and coming to the US as a child, the son of a traditional rug dealer, Kazan was the quintessential outsider. At fashionable Williams College he was the unattractive little guy who paid his way by waiting on tables and doing odd jobs. The aristocratic Williams student body was unaware of his existence. They had no idea that within that unassuming human being so invisible to them was a little dynamo ready to move in and take over. He was like a secret agent placed in the midst of an unsuspecting organisation. He didn’t even go out for dramatic activities. It wasn’t until he got to the Yale drama school, where he met his wife, the aristocratic Molly Day Thacher, that his dramatic instincts were aroused.

Considered not good-looking enough to make it as an actor, he eagerly took on any subservient theatre job that came along. At the Group Theatre’s summer camp, he mostly did the volunteer small chores that kept the community going. Kazan was like a hidden time bomb set to wait its time and then explode. No one had thought of him as an actor – actors looked like Franchot Tone – but I’ll never forget seeing him in Irwin Shaw’s The Gentle People with Tone and Sylvia Sidney. From the moment Kazan bounded on stage, the very able and attractive Tone and Sidney disappeared. It’s been seven decades but I still remember his remarkable impact. He was the little engine that could. There was something fierce about that performance. It wasn’t theatrical. It was organic. He was wound up from the inside.

Remember the art, forget the politics: Budd Schulberg on forgiving director Elia Kazan [The Guardian]


Justice to Kazan ’31

Great article on the life and times of Elia Kazan ’31.

When Elia Kazan, one of the twentieth century’s great American theater and movie directors, died two years ago, the obituaries almost all struck the same sour note. As the New York Times put it, in addition to his artistic accomplishments, Kazan committed “what many still consider one of the great ideological betrayals in American performing arts history.” The Los Angeles Times, the movie business’s hometown paper, announced his death with a straightforward page one headline, elia kazan, 1909-2003, but then got down to cases in the subhead: stage and screen triumphs were eclipsed by his testimony against colleagues in the blacklist era.

For many “progressives” — especially in the entertainment business — “eclipsed” doesn’t begin to tell the story. Over the entire half-century after he “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee on April 12, 1952, Kazan remained the very embodiment of a self-serving, backstabbing rat bastard. The assumption about his moral turpitude rests on another assumption, so often echoed in books, movies, and classrooms that by now it appears an indisputable fact: that the blacklist was a straightforward case of good versus evil, pitting decent Americans defending free thought and expression against the vilest forces of reaction.

Like the most heavy-handed Hollywood “message” movie, such a view allows for zero ethical complexity — and it is nonsense. While no one can deny or excuse the bullying and moral corruption of federal investigators, the term routinely applied to their work —- “witch hunt” —- is entirely misleading. Mid-twentieth-century Hollywood, California, had nothing in common with seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts. In Hollywood, the witches —- communist activists, working surreptitiously to advance Soviet interests —- were all too real.

Exactly so. There is a great senior thesis waiting to be written about Kazan and the effect that his time at Williams had on his career. Who will write it?


Kazan Blacklisted

This article has a brief mention of Elia Kazan ’31.

Director Elia Kazan, who named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ’50s, had been persona non grata in Hollywood for decades when the Academy decided to present him an honorary Oscar in 1999; despite masterpieces like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and On the Waterfront, the American Film Institute had refused to approve a proposal to similarly honor Kazan some ten years earlier.

There is a great senior thesis to be written about Kazan and his decision to name some names.


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