Perpetual Outsiders

The immigrant experience in the cinema of Elia Kazan
by Bilge Ebiri  posted October 9, 2009
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For all his Oscars and acclaim, Elia Kazan's artistic legacy has been defined over the years by its mutability. His films first gained notice more for their progressive social heft—tackling such topics as anti-Semitism, racism, class struggle, the rise of television, etc. In later years, as his earlier works' social messages started to seem a bit dusty in comparison to the New Hollywood of the '60s and '70s, Kazan's films would be remembered more for their seminal performances—most notably, Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), and On the Waterfront (1954) and James Dean in East of Eden (1955). But Kazan always had a steep hill to climb with some critics: Andrew Sarris and the auteurists of the '60s relegated him to the "Less Than Meets the Eye" category ("His career as a whole reflects an unending struggle between a static camera and a jittery one," Sarris wrote.) Along the way, the director's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 also compromised his legacy. (The old wound was rubbed raw again in 1999, when the 89-year-old Kazan received an honorary Oscar amid a surprising torrent of controversy.)

In his immense, stunningly candid autobiography, A Life, published in 1988, the director reveals that he himself had a contentious relationship with his own work. Though he makes no apologies for his earlier films, he seems at times to buy into others' criticisms, arguing that he spent his career doing other people's bidding, "pleasing those with the power to give me jobs," working as a hired hand on studio films and only beginning to make movies that truly mattered to him in the 1960s, with semi-autobiographical films such as America America (1963) and The Arrangement (1969) and their head-on treatment of the immigrant experience.

Kazan is too harsh on himself. Those early films are not impersonal. Revisiting his career today, especially in light of the deeply confessional films and books of his later years, one can see that Kazan's worldview as an immigrant also shapes and colors the early narratives in surprising and often furiously compelling ways. Kazan's characters are nomads—perpetual outsiders who often have to be taught to behave and to get by in the worlds in which they find themselves. As such, the films often unspool as studies of tribal behavior, much like the cinema of John Ford, Kazan's favorite director. But whereas Ford's outsiders were usually castaways from their respective tribes, Kazan's are often interlopers: they come from elsewhere, and they never do truly fit in, even if they try. A happy ending in a Kazan film (on the rare occasion when they do have happy endings) usually consists of a character moving away or making peace with the fact that he will always be apart.

Emotional Drifters: Displaced Roots and Forgotten Selves

Born to Turkish Greeks in Istanbul in 1909, Elia Kazan migrated to America with his family in 1919. Like so many other young first-generation immigrants, he integrated fully with American society as a child. But if his autobiography is to be believed, he often found himself doing things to fit in even in his adult years:

Arriving in this country from a land where his people had existed in terror, an immigrant boy without the language and accompanied by a family of adults, foreigners who lived here in suspicion and fear and never gained secure positions in this society—such a boy became convinced that to survive on the streets and in the schools, to be accepted, he must do whatever was necessary to gain the favor of powerful people around him, be they adults or kids his own age....I developed into a child-person and, inevitably, into an adult who, I'm embarrassed to confess, did whatever it was necessary to do and became whoever it was expeditious to become to get by. I was many different people, depending on the circumstances.

The most autobiographical title in Kazan's filmography is certainly The Arrangement, in which Kirk Douglas plays a successful Los Angeles advertising executive who attempts suicide, then travels back to New York to see his Greek-immigrant parents (modeled directly on Kazan's own) and reunite with his youthful and passionate former mistress (Faye Dunaway) even as his loving, long-suffering wife (Deborah Kerr) tries to find ways to help him. The film, along with the novel on which it's based (also penned by Kazan), could be seen as a loose sequel to 1963's America America, which was inspired by the experiences of Kazan's uncle, the first in his family to leave Turkey for the United States; some scenes from America America are used in a brief flashback sequence in the later film. The depth of the self-loathing displayed by Douglas's character, a man who gave up dreams of becoming a writer, is breathtaking—especially when one considers that the advertising exec at the heart of this fractured, nightmarish vision is only a thinly veiled version of the acclaimed filmmaker himself.

But The Arrangement, for all its modernist stylization, also harks back to another film in Kazan's career. In its satirical presentation of the pervasive and corrosive power of advertising, as well as the disingenuousness required to succeed in it, it recalls A Face in the Crowd, Kazan and Budd Schulberg's infamous media satire, made 12 years earlier, about Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith in his film debut), a guitar-picking drifter from Arkansas who, thanks to his hillbilly homilies and seemingly homespun philosophy, becomes an overnight TV sensation and cynical power broker. Face has earned rightful praise as a prophetic portrait of the power of television (with any number of contemporary echoes in modern-day know-nothings like Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly), but it's also a tragic tale of a man who drifts far from home in the service of others and convinces himself of his own greatness. Both it and The Arrangement are about the seductive power of bad faith.

Rhodes is, at heart, the creation of Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), a young broadcaster who discovers him in an Arkansas jail cell, immediately realizes his potential, and becomes his lover. And although he becomes much more powerful than Marcia, Rhodes still seeks her acceptance, right through to the end of the film: she comes to represent, in some strange way, the identity he has assumed for himself. Discussing the film in his memoir, Kazan makes this remarkable assertion about it, relating the story to his relationship with his own wife, Molly:

The story...has little to do with American politics or even with life behind the scenes of the television industry. It is both more fundamental and more intimate. It takes place within the woman and her conscience....For many years, I'd clung to Molly because she was the talisman of my success and my measure of merit. She was the reassuring symbol that the very heart of America, which my family had come here to find, had accepted me. That is why we never divorced, never could or never would. Behind my bluster, I was still a person uncertain of his final worth.

He may have come from Arkansas and might have become the voice of the nation, but Lonesome Rhodes is as much a foreigner in the big city as someone who has passed through Ellis Island. Near the end of the film, in the midst of a near-operatic meltdown brought about partly by a betrayal from Marcia, he yells out, singing, "Ten thousand miles away from home. And I don't even know my name!" This moment of clarity lasts a brief instant, but the point is clear: as much as it may be a sharp-tongued media satire, A Face in the Crowd is also a tale of an immigrant who has lost his way home. In retrospect, one can detect the seething emotional resentment of The Arrangement bubbling beneath this earlier film's sardonic surface.

Other Kazan films have tackled this notion of displacement, of characters severed from their origins, in subtler ways. In East of Eden, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) and his son Cal (James Dean) are diametrically opposed in terms of character bearing—the physically, morally upright father at odds with his constantly hunched, scrappy son. And yet they both suffer from a sense of uprootedness. For all his participation in community groups (such as the local draft board), Adam has too much moral rectitude to get by in this world. His already tense relationship with his son is finally blasted apart when Cal buys bean futures to make back the money Adam lost in a refrigerated lettuce venture earlier in the film. Once he finds out, Adam responds violently, accusing his son of war profiteering—but it's telling that Cal's inspiration in this venture came from the other townspeople. The Trask family patriarch finds himself out of step with the rest of the community—and indeed at one point laments how much easier life was back on the farm. (That he finds easy kinship with the town's one German immigrant, the shoemaker Gustav Albrecht, on the eve of World War I is further proof of how out of sync he is with the times.)

Cal Trask too is alienated from who he is—his discovery that his mother (Jo Van Fleet) is now a whorehouse madam in Monterey is just one part of his attempt to uncover his origins, and his true self: "I gotta know who I am. I gotta know who I'm like!" Early in the film, Kazan shoots Cal's journey between his home in Salinas and "the rough-and-tumble fishing town of Monterey" where his mother works (two locations that the film's opening titles specifically pit against one another) as an almost literal migration, with Dean's Cal huddled desperately on the roof of a passenger train, trying to warm himself with a sweater. It's also notable, however, that when Cal later forces his unsuspecting brother Aron to confront their mother and her profession, the two brothers appear in Monterey virtually instantaneously; the result is dreamlike, perhaps symbolic. These characters live in a world of sharply defined boundaries. As they discover more about themselves and their community, and as these boundaries come down, they call into question whether they belong in this world at all.

Learning to Behave: Adopting the Rituals of Another World

Kazan's outsiders often have to be taught to behave—to assume the mores, attitudes, and sacraments of the worlds in which they find themselves. Sometimes this is an overt part of the narrative: Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata! has to learn to read and to appropriate the mannerisms of a politician once his revolution succeeds—and promptly realizes he's not cut out for statecraft. Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and Pinky (1949) both concern themselves directly with characters who have to pretend to be something they're not—in the former, Gregory Peck plays a reporter posing as a Jew to uncover anti-Semitism in America, and in the latter, Jeanne Crain plays a light-skinned African American woman passing as white. And in America America, of course, young Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis) passes through numerous situations in which he has to assume different identities and postures that will allow him to make it across Turkey and to America; he finally manages to make the trip using someone else's papers.

One could even count among their number Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) in A Streetcar Named Desire, who has traveled from Mississippi to New Orleans in an attempt to leave her past behind and never manages to find a way to truly coexist with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her husband Stanley (Marlon Brando). The story and the characters are Tennessee Williams's, but the clinical eye for behavior reacting against behavior belongs at least in part to Kazan. For all the film's sensitivity toward its protagonists, for all the intensity of its performances and its hothouse atmosphere, there's a studied aloofness to Streetcar, as Kazan's bemused gaze holds these strange specimens up to the light.

A subtler variation on this theme occurs in Panic in the Streets (1950), as the film's heroic doctor protagonist Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) has to battle a deadly outbreak of "pneumonic plague" in New Orleans but is unable to find the correct way to deal with the people he comes across, especially among the city's immigrant underclass, where the disease has begun to spread. Reed finds himself at odds with the tough-as-nails police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) as well. The film is meant to be a genre thriller, but Kazan somewhat startlingly turns it into a study of conflicting modes of behavior. Indeed, some of the film's finest, most touching moments come in its depictions of the suspicion with which immigrant communities view authority. Among the first victims of the disease are an aging Greek husband and wife who operate a restaurant that the film's patient zero frequented. When initially questioned by the authorities, the couple reacts suspiciously and doesn't cooperate, even though the woman is clearly sick. Later, after the wife dies, Kazan portrays the devoted husband's despair with a remarkable degree of sympathy.

The film never explicitly states it, but Reed himself seems like a new arrival in New Orleans. He doesn't know the city well. He's excluded from the playful banter between the other professionals—cops, journalists, and politicians—among whom he circulates. He needs to learn from Warren some of the tactics of police coercion. There are hints that he was in California not too long ago for another recent outbreak of the disease. He even has to ask his son who the next-door neighbor is. Meanwhile, his wife encourages him to consider taking a private-sector job—"Arabian pipelines or expeditions to Chile as medical adviser"—so they can finally make some money. Reed and his family don't really belong here, and we get the sense that they'll leave the first chance they get.

The film even allows Reed a moment of surprising self-doubt (refreshing for a hero in an American genre film in the 1950s), when he confesses to his wife that he needs to learn to be more like Warren:

You know, today I took a perfectly nice guy, a cop...not the smartest guy in the world, but who is? So I push him around, make a lot of smart cracks about him...and tell him off all day long. And he winds up proving he's four times the man I'll ever be.

Nevertheless, Panic in the Streets is clearly on the side of its heroic and resolute doctor protagonist, whose by-the-book manner may be out of step with the wider community but results in triumph all the same.

Compare that to Wild River (1960), in which Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift), an idealistic field official for the Tennessee Valley Authority armed with nothing but his deep belief in progress, faces off against an intransigent elderly woman (Jo Van Fleet) who refuses to move out of her farm on an island that will soon be inundated by the waters of the Tennessee River, a result of a dam being built by the TVA. Glover also finds himself stuck between the old woman's family and the racist townspeople eager to get her off the land. Never in his element, he initially doesn't understand why people would want to stay in their homes; he doesn't seem to have a home himself or to belong anywhere. It's telling that Kazan initially took on the project years earlier as "homage to the spirit of FDR," only to find himself over time identifying less with the idealistic protagonist from the city and more with the stubborn old woman who refuses to leave her land. One wonders if his change of heart may have had something to do with his greater interest in his own family's history, and with his life-changing visit to Turkey in 1955, when the famous Greek-American director got a chance to visit the ruins that had been his ancestral home.

The outsider dynamic is once again at play in The Visitors, a seemingly minor late work shot on 16mm (at a time when Kazan was finding it harder and harder to finance his films, following the box office failures of The Arrangement and America America) and scripted by his son Chris. One of the earliest American films to address the Vietnam War, it's the story of Bill Schmidt (James Woods), a veteran whose life with his young girlfriend Martha (Patricia Joyce) and newborn baby is disrupted by the appearance of two fellow soldiers (Steve Railsback and Chico Martinez) whom he testified against in a court-martial over a brutal, My Lai-like massacre.

Savvy observers will note that the film, like On the Waterfront, ennobles a character who testified against his comrades—for obvious reasons, a key Kazan touchpoint in his post-HUAC work. But more than anything, the film is a tale of tribal conflict. Bill may have a beautiful woman by his side and a baby daughter, but he's far from fully integrated into this world: Martha's father (Patrick McVey), a gruff, macho WWII veteran, lives in a cabin across from them and clearly disdains the young man, convinced that Bill and Martha are together only because she got pregnant. Bill is a stranger in his own home, and his alienation mounts with the arrival of his former comrades, who seem, at first, to embody everything the old man values. While Bill mopes around, the father and the other men go shooting, play football, watch sports, and trade war stories—tribal rituals of the American male that, as the film's tension mounts, take on the menacing contours of a war dance, one that will end with an unavoidable burst of violence. (It's interesting to note the similarities between The Visitors and Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs: made around the same time, both concern young men defending their mates and their homes from besieging interlopers who threaten to upstage their masculinity.)

The later films (with the exception of the director's somewhat anonymous final film, The Last Tycoon, in which he was a last-minute replacement for Mike Nichols) made tangible, perhaps too much so, the pretenses and crises that had been prevalent throughout Kazan's life and career. But they also offer keys for unlocking the earlier films: The Arrangement, with its portrait of a character who has become alienated from his roots, and America America, with its study of a refugee who has to learn to adopt the mannerisms of the worlds he inhabits. It is perhaps ironic that Kazan himself, for the most part, didn't see the resonances with his earlier work, preferring to focus on these later films as the only ones in which he was true to himself. Perhaps the resentments he carried from his personal life in those early years (all of it scrupulously detailed in A Life) were too great for him, or perhaps the films didn't live up to standards he had set for himself. Or maybe he was yet again playing another part: that of the émigré filmmaker who had finally made an uneasy peace with his roots. 


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Warner Brothers
Kirk Douglas in The Arrangement, directed by Elia Kazan
Photo Gallery: Perpetual Outsiders


October 9-November 23, 2009 Elia Kazan Retrospective


Bilge Ebiri writes about film for New York magazine and Bookforum. He is also the director of the feature film New Guy (2003).

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