I just finished watching Elia Kazan's 1961 melodrama Splendor in the Grass, a movie I found myself very absorbed in. I've mentioned my love for melodrama before, especially as done by Douglas Sirk, but my love for those films have always come from a more intellectual level -- I get a kick out of the subtle hints of interior meaning or catching some bit of irony -- or are based on purely aesthetic reasons -- the colors, widescreen composition, framing. The emotional aspects of the films does connect sometimes, but never completely.
Splendor in the Grass, however, had me emotionally invested in the characters in a way completely devoid of irony. I mean, sure, some scenes with the parents did seem like overt caricatures, but every character has more than one layer, and some of them have several. Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood as Bud and Deanie are multi-faceted, beautiful, stupid, sympathetic, and tragic and I loved watching them. Despite the grandness (and maybe heavy-handedness) of the messages and situations in the film, there is an earnestness that gives the film its life.
Kazan most certainly has a gift for working with actors (a bit of an understatement, sure), and his investment into performance adds the transcendent element of his films. Some may say that the many highlighted performances in Kazan's films are over-reaching displays of forced emotion that verge on camp, but I tend to disagree. If you are in the right mood these characters can really get to you, despite whatever standards we have of "realistic" acting nowadays. I was knocked out by Brando in On the Waterfront, nearly heart-broken. I remember seeing James Dean in East of Eden and being completely convinced of his insecurity and longing despite his stunning beauty. I was even blown away by Andy Griffith in The Face in the Crowd, who felt so large and explosive on screen and went way beyond whatever preconceptions I had about him.
These are all great films too, not just great performances, and I want to cherish Kazan. But I can't. And this is simply because he named names during the '50s under the HUAC investigation. It's such a nasty bit of information that it gives Kazan a stigma worse than almost anything else except being part of the Nazi party or the KKK. I forgive a lot for the sake of artists -- affairs, craziness, being mean and awful to people -- but for some reason Kazan's naming names feels almost unforgivable. Perhaps it's too easy for me to say in hindsight fifty years after the fact from my computer, but I don't know, it still bothers me.
As much as I love On the Waterfront, the fact that it is an allegory to justify ratting people out really tears at me. I remain conflicted. Are there worse crimes? Probably. If I were at the Oscars (dream on) the year Kazan received his honorary award, would I -- like Ed Harris and Nick Nolte -- refuse to stand and applaud? Maybe not. I would probably just sit and clap sarcastically. Or perhaps I would pretend I had to go to the bathroom and avoid the whole thing.