Feminist Director Crisis of Faith: Elia Kazan

So I’m at home in Scranton for a little more than two weeks before returning to the city to direct Alcestis. Before I left I picked up a book at the Strand (another very famous New York landmark) called Kazan on Directing. Published just this year, it’s a collection of Elia Kazan‘s notes and journals. Kazan is one of the first American auteurs, in terms of both film and stage. He was a founding member of The Actors Studio and was an instrumental force in our nation’s two attempts at forming a national theater. (It wasn’t his fault they failed, America’s just pretty bad at funding the arts in general, and it didn’t help that a lot of America’s best theatre artists had Communist ties, sending certain American congressmen into hissy fits.)

Kazan also directed one of my favorite films of all time, East of Eden, the first film James Dean starred in. Dean is amazing in it, and the storytelling is just breathtaking. (Steinbeck and Kazan add up to a very twisted kind of Biblical Americana.)

Expressionism + Method Acting + Steinbeck = Awesome

After seeing East of Eden, I saw A Streetcar Named Desire, the film adaptation of Kazan’s acclaimed stage production (written by a troubled Southern gentleman named Tennessee Williams). I’ve talked about the ineffable charisma of this film before, but I will reiterate that it’s one of the most interesting studies in gender relations and cultural studies on celluloid. It both mourns and indicts genteel and blue collar Southern culture, setting up the two representations of these cultures (Blanche and Stanley, respectively) on a path to destruction.

Cultures collide. In the most disturbing and sexy way possible.

At least that’s what I saw in the film. I saw two equal forces fighting for the love of one woman: Stella. A woman who started out like Blanche, delicate, unprepared for the real world, and fell in with Stanley, a man she happily compares to an animal, because he gives her permission to be an animal sometimes too, to like sex, to be a sexual being. The battle for Stella is the fight between primitivism and ingrained chauvinism. Blanche found a way to empower herself through the chauvinism of the culture she grew up by cultivating a personality that needed to be taken care of, that made men feel secure in her dependence on them. Stanley and Stella have a troubled relationship but it is much more equal than any relationship Blanche wants to have.

Okay, that said, now this is what Kazan himself said about the piece:

Blanche is an outdated creature, approaching extinction, like the dinosaur. She is about to be pushed off the edge of the world. On the other hand, she is a heightened version, an artistic intensification, of all women. That is what makes the play universal. Blanche’s special relation to all women is that she is at that critical point where the one thing above all else that she is dependent on–her physical attractiveness, what men find appealing about her–is beginning to fade. Blanche is like all women, dependent on a man, looking for someone to hang on to: only more so! [Bold stands in for Kazan’s italics.]

Okay so maybe I am a token feminist for saying this, but really? Every woman is dependent on a man? What about women like Uta Hagen, even Stella Adler, who were successful, (mostly) happy, and independent within Kazan’s own community? His work on Stella:

Stella is a refined girl who has found a kind of salvation or realization but at a terrific cost. She keeps her eyes closed, even stays in bed as much as possible so that she won’t realize, won’t feel the pain of the price she has paid. She walks around as if in a daze. She’s waiting for the dark where Stanley makes her feel only him, and she has no reminder of what she has given up. She does not want the other world to intrude. She’s in a sensual stupor. She shuts out all challenge all day long. She loafs, does her hair, her nails, fixes a dress, doesn’t eat much, only prepares Stanley’s dinner and waits for Stanley. She searches for no other meaning from life. Her pregnancy just makes it more so. She is buried alive in her flesh. She doesn’t seem to see much. She laughs incessantly like a child tickled and stops abruptly as the stimuli, the tickling, stops, and returns to the condition of a pleasantly drugged child.

And yet he also says:

She [Stella] tries to conceal from herself her true needs through hiding herself in a sex relationship. But her real needs–for tenderness, for the several aspects of living, for self-realization–still live , and she can’t kill them by ignoring them. She hugs Stanley in Scene Four [that the infamous “Stella!” scene] out of desperation and out of a need to silence her doubts by the violence of sexual love (the old reliable), but Blanche has succeeded in calling Stella’s attention to her own “sellout,” and she can never see Stanley or their relationship the same way again.


Stella is plain out of her head about Stanley. She has to keep herself from constantly touching him. She can hardly keep her hands off him. She is setting little traps all the time to conquer his pretended indifference (he talks differently at night , in bed). She embarrasses him (though he is secretly proud) by following him places. They have a game where he tries to shake her all the time and she pursues him, etc. He makes her a panther in bed. he fulfilled her more than she knew possible, and she has to stop herself from crawling after him. She’s utterly blind as to what’s wrong with Stanley, and she doesn’t care, until Blanche arrives. At the end of the play, her life is entirely different. It will never be the same with Stanley again.

As much as my hackles rose in response to this idea that we all need men, I like that Kazan understands Stella’s tragedy, if I disagree with him about what she’s giving up. Stella and Stanley’s relationship is by no means entirely healthy, but it’s definitely a modern relationship. Stella has given something up by being with Stanley, but that’s kind of what love is. It can be hard to love the whole person sometimes, so Stella decides to forget about the hitting, about the elements of the brutality that at once scare her and turn her on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s okay for anyone to hit anybody ever, but I do believe we should also not condescend to women, real or imaginary. If they are fully aware of all the implications of their relationship, they have the right to live as they please. Because most of the time we can’t get perfect happiness, and that’s alright. As Rebecca Traister says, screw happiness, dissatisfaction is awesome in its own right.

So how does feminist director me deal with the fact that one of my aesthetic idols is a chauvinist? (And a traitor, if you listen to certain sources, though his HUAC testimony is a much more complex issue than many people think.) Well, look at this:

There is a vulnerability here for both of them that at least means he's a good director if not necessarily an all together good person.

So I’d say the big thing to remember in directing is always compassion for your characters, combined with the lucidity of a good therapist, a great friend. A belief that sometimes we don’t live well, we just live. That is both the tragedy and triumph of modern drama. That is what I will take away from Mr. Kazan. For now, that’s my staging principle.

This is either the most masculine picture there ever was or the dorkiest. Or both. I just don't know.


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