Sunday 24 September 2017

On Screen Acting - Bruce Hodsdon explores Star Actors and Auteurs in classical Hollywood and after (3): Elia Kazan: mainstream maverick…and additional views on Otto Preminger

Elia Kazan, Otto Preminger and Douglas Sirk, with careers as film directors grounded in the theatre, the latter two in pre-war Austria and Germany, were seminal auteurs in the transition from the classical to the new Hollywood.

Elia Kazan
In contrast to Otto Preminger, Elia Kazan became something of a legend as an “actor's director.” Like Preminger he came to filmmaking through the theatre, first as an actor then as director in the Group Theatre in the early thirties. The Group Theatre had been formed in 1931 by Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg, performing realistic social plays and semi- Brechtian productions. There was a commitment to liberating actors from the text through techniques of “affective memory” and improvisation, adopting the thought of the Russians - Anton Chekhov and especially the methods of the actor-director Constantin Stanislavski, a search for truthfulness in performance, haunted by the question rooted in the work of the Russian realists : how does an actor act? Stanislavski had arrived in New York with his company, The Moscow Art Theatre, in 1923, and as has been said:  American acting has never been the same. This ultimately provided a base for Kazan's enduring place in the history of American theatre and cinema.

Preminger was an apprentice actor and then director in Vienna in the twenties initially acting under the famous theatre (and later in the US, film) director Max Reinhardt. Reinhardt's theatre direction was eclectic with each play to be approached as a separate entity with its own style. Chris Fujiwara suggests that Preminger shared Reinhardt's trait of immersing himself in the individual work and “a taste for grandeur of scale and duration.” Further, “Preminger belonged to the cinematic tradition of Murnau... (which ) has its origin partly in the realist/illusionist theatre  of Reinhardt (surviving) in the realism of Preminger.”

"Stella...." Marlon Brando, film version of A Streetcar Named Desire
After the collapse of the Group Theatre in the late thirties, Kazan, with Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, founded the Actor's Studio in 1947, a workshop for professional actors “with a more modest agenda than the Group Theatre.”  In the same year Kazan, now a successful director on Broadway, directed Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. He had directed his first film in Hollywood,  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in 1945.

The Studio was an immediate success, rapidly becoming the place to be for the most promising and unconventional young actors who learned how to create and sustain a part in a play. It was, however, the movies – in particular the success of actors like Brando and Dean - that put the Studio on the map.  They brought a new realism in a layering of performance; what became known as the Method. They were actually exposed to the techniques of a charged psychological realism through Kazan more than Strasberg. Strasberg was, James Naremore acknowledges, undoubtedly a gifted teacher who, along with Kazan, inspired an epoch-changing shift in acting styles.

Foster Hirsch in his book on the Actor's Studio points out that Brando's performance in Streetcar had been created on the stage before the Studio's formation. It is greatly overstating it to say that Brando was a creation of the Method. He was the most gifted and intelligent actor of his generation who managed none the less to appear in more bad pictures than probably “any major thespian than Orson Welles, and his disdain for show business has given a somewhat veiled effect to his work.” (Naremore).

Kazan described Brando “as close to a genius as I've ever met among actors. There was something miraculous about him, in that I would explain to him what I had in mind...but his listening would be so total...he would not answer right away, but go away and then do something that often surprised me.”

James Naremore in Acting in the Cinema suggests that with the obsession with the self in quasi-Freudian terms, Strasberg in the role of analyst, tended to de-politicise the Method. The Group Theatre had placed more stress on ensemble interaction and the relationship of individuals to society rather than individual analysis of the actor's self. Naremore goes on to discuss how he sees the Method as most useful in encapsulating broader nonconformist patterns in the image of a Brando or a Dean  – more naturalistic settings, acting out of the existential paradigm, and deviations from classical rhetoric prevailing in the performance of established male stars, while continued centring and fluidity in representation of the nonconformist anti-hero leaves the norms of classical narrative illusionism pretty much intact.

Julie Harris, James Dean, East of Eden
As a director and aspiring writer, Kazan was a key figure in the change overtaking classical Hollywood in the postwar years. He was in the forefront of the incursion of a form of social realism and 'art films' into the mainstream of American cinema with films like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955) and Baby Doll (1956), as Hollywood searched for answers to the steep decline in cinema attendances following the boom years of the thirties and through the forties.

It was after establishing a production unit in New York in the early fifties, operating independently within the studio system, that Kazan freed himself from the uneven attempt to renovate genre filmmaking at Fox with social and political themes in the six films he directed between 1945-50, most enduringly successful in the noir thriller Panic in the Streets (1950). In this bid for a measure of independence, Kazan became something of an inspiration in succeeding decades for the likes of John Cassavetes, Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.

Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Splendour in the Grass
His most enduring films are likely to be what is loosely 'an American quartet': East of Eden, Splendor in the Grass, Wild River and America America. In the course of many interviews Kazan also expressed special regard for Viva Zapata! On the Waterfront, Baby Doll, the first half of A Face in the Crowd and the personal, if critically maligned The Arrangement (1969) which he adapted from his own novel, in the process retrospectively acknowledging that he made “some critical mistakes.”

Brando, Eva Marie Saint, On the Waterfront
Actors on Kazan: On the set Kazan had the ability to free his actors. They testify that he would take people aside and confer with them as if sharing with you and only you, always personal, never severe. He always seemed to have his arm around Jimmy Dean and they were off to one side conferring. Eva Marie Saint confirmed that “he said things that were specific to me. So completely different when I worked with Hitchcock on North by Northwest. He never talked to me about my character - he just gave me external things, like 'lower your voice'.” There was constant rehearsal on a Kazan set. You had to stay in character, not allow yourself to be distracted.

Kazan on actors and acting: “At the Actor's Studio I knew the actors not only as technicians but as people. The material of the profession is the lives actors have led up to now. The basic channel of the role must flow through the actor. He has to have the role in him somewhere. One thing in the Stanislavski system that I always what happened before the scene. By the time the scene starts they are fully in it, not just saying lines that they have been given...cinematic in that they take reliance off the dialogue. One of the basic things in the technique of the Method is to use objects a's like making an act out of a feeling, through the helps actors who are self conscious.”                                                                   -
from Foster Hirsch, A Method in their Madness (1984), Ch 17.

“ It is very difficult to work with actors because the life that most of them live is a life of cafes, the school, the studio. Life cannot leave its mark on their faces - they do not bear on them the mark of life as lived. It is very rare to find an actor who has that and still more rare to find one who can play that. Brando at the time he played On the Waterfront was a much better actor than he is now (Nov 1966). I do not mean that a talent can be lost, like that, all at once. I mean at the time he was an unhappy young man, anxious, who doubted himself, solitary, proud, oversensitive. He was someone not particularly easy to get along with, but he was a wonderful, loveable man because one felt that nothing protected him from life, that he was in the midst of it.

Lee Remick, Anatomy of a Murder
“What is terrible with an actor is that it is hard for him to prevail over success...more difficult than over failure. They all use success to isolate themselves, to keep aloof from experiencing life. He looks like wax fruit, he is no longer devoured by life as most of the characters he has to play must be. That is why I must always find new actors...those who still have a passion, a violence that they will almost certainly lose later. That's why I never employ stars although some have become stars later. In Wild River Lee Remick was not yet a star and Monty Clift had lived through a terrible catastrophe. When Natalie Wood made Splendor in the Grass (it seemed) she was at the end of her career. She was in despair....Dean, he was a beginner in East of Eden. He had violence in him, he had a hunger within him, he was himself the boy he played in the film. I never use actors by having them read a script. I do it after having talked with them a great deal.”   from an interview with Michel Delahaye in Nov.1966 for Cahiers du Cinema, translated in Cahiers du Cinema in English, March 1967.
Preminger and actors: In the second part of this series the description of Otto Preminger's direction of actors drew on information about three of his most fraught relationships with actors on the set. Chris Fujiwara'a account of the filming of two of Preminger’s most successful films, Exodus and Anatomy of a Murder, gives a somewhat different picture. On the latter Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick speak of Preminger leaving actors pretty much to their own devices only occasionally asserting his authority. They confirmed that the atmosphere during the filming was “enjoyable and sociable.” Gazzara was impressed by how James Stewart singularly applied himself in coming to terms with the script (he had a lot of dialogue to deliver). George C Scott said that he liked Preminger although he considered him “too emotional to be a good director.”

Sal Mineo. Exodus
Although filming was more tense on Exodus and there were several altercations most notably with Lee J Cobb, Preminger was in command of a demanding shoot, asserting his authority over Paul Newman's tendency to want to involve himself in direction. Preminger's reputation for unpredictability would seem to be the greatest problem for actors, particularly those in supporting roles. However Sal Mineo, who worked intensively with Preminger in a gruelling series of takes through the night on Exodus, is quoted as saying: “You know Otto sounds like a Nazi, and he's a tough buzzard, but he's got a great heart. Nice man.”

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