Elia Kazan’s films first gained notice for their progressive social heft—tackling such topics as anti-Semitism, racism, class struggle and the rise of television. In later years, 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).
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.
Born to Turkish Greeks in Istanbul in 1909, 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 in his autobiography, he confesses, 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 (1969), 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 written 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 by 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.
Excerpted from Perpetual Outsiders, by Bilge Ebiri, originally printed in Moving Image Source, with permission fromf the author and the Museum of the Moving Image.