Analysis: Kazan + O'Connor = Hollywood

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Sept. 30, 2003 at 1:09 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Sept. 30 (UPI) -- The deaths of director Elia Kazan and song-and-dance man Donald O'Connor serve as a reminder that there have always been two Hollywoods -- one focused on "important art," the other intent only on entertaining audiences.

Kazan, who died of natural causes at 94 in New York Sunday, was a leading proponent of an approach to theater that was grounded in scholarship, research and respect for the theater as an institution of human culture. He is remembered for such socially conscious films as "On the Waterfront," "Gentleman's Agreement" and "A Face in the Crowd."

O'Connor, who was 78 when he died of heart failure in Los Angeles Saturday, is remembered as one of the leading practitioners from the golden age age of movie musicals -- notwithstanding the fact that he had no formal training as a dancer.

It's difficult to measure which of the two -- or which of their schools, at any rate -- had the greater impact on American life.

Predictably, the lead in Kazan's obituary includes a reference to his controversial role in the McCarthy era, when he provided congressional investigators with names of Communists Hollywood. The film community remains divided on the propriety of Kazan's choice, but there is no argument that his work was a primary factor in Hollywood's embrace in the '50s of an earthy approach to filmmaking that challenged audiences.

"He helped change American film, making it more naturalistic, a little less glossy than the traditional Hollywood fashion," said film historian Leonard Maltin. "Actors today still look at films like 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and 'On the Waterfront' because their impact is so enormous."

Kazan -- who worked as an actor in the '30s as part of the legendary left-wing company The Group -- directly influenced such '40s and '50s stars as Marlon Brando ("Streetcar" on Broadway and, later, on the screen) and James Dean ("East of Eden"). His influence continued into the '60s and '70s as he collaborated with Warren Beatty ("Splendor in the Grass") and Robert De Niro ("The Last Tycoon").

Maltin told United Press International Kazan's influence extended far beyond his direct effect on the actors he worked with -- as the broader acting community began to adopt his technique and studios became more open to making the kinds of pictures Kazan had such success with.

"'Streetcar' wouldn't and couldn't have been made five or six years earlier," said Maltin. "Even though they had to temper some of it for Hollywood censorship reasons, the fact that it was made in that way, I think, built a bridge for audiences to start to cross into more sophisticated, more adult storytelling."

However, Maltin said those days seem to be gone already.

"You don't get much adult intelligent moviemaking nowadays," he said. "Not from the studios."

On the other hand, a revival is under way in Hollywood for the musical comedy -- the genre that O'Connor rode to stardom in the 1940s and '50s.

Debbie Reynolds told UPI her "Singin' in the Rain" co-star had been gratified to see the renewed interest in the form, which resulted from Oscar nominations for "Moulin Rouge" last year and a Best Picture Oscar for "Chicago" earlier this year.

"We were all thrilled," she said. "He loved it. His whole life was devoted to dance."

O'Connor represented something of a polar opposite from the academic track that Kazan followed. His parents came from the circus and vaudeville traditions, and he was just three days old when he crawled onto a stage, got his first round of applause, and began to learn his craft.

"It was a road of hard knocks," said Reynolds, who toured with O'Connor for two years during the '90s in a variety-vaudeville-concert tour. "He worked hard and made it to the top."

Reynolds called her former co-star one of the great song-and-dance men ever -- comparable with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

"He could keep up with the best of them," she said, "and maybe even stay a step ahead."

Certainly, his "Make 'Em Laugh" number from "Singin' in the Rain" is one of the most memorable song-and-dance routines in the history of the movie musical.

"That piece is as good a piece of entertainment as ever existed," A.C. Lyles, Paramount producer and executive for 75 years and a close friend of O'Connor's, told the Times.

It is tempting to conclude that Kazan's impact on our culture was more meaningful than O'Connor's. After all, Kazan directed the original Broadway production of Arthur Miller's classic American play "Death of a Salesman," and his best movie work pulled off a very difficult trick -- in addition to being highly entertaining, it also offered audiences sometimes stern lessons of consience and morality.

But it would be awfully shortsighted to neglect the real social value of O'Connor's contribution. People need to laugh, of course, and skilled specialists in music and comedy should always be valued; but as a master of his craft, O'Connor gets credit as well for setting an almost impossibly high standard.

Reynolds said the musical comedy form is -- in many ways -- more demanding than what a casual observer might think of as "serious" theater.

"The training is more difficult -- the hours that go into it," she said. "Dance is very demanding ... you have to be highly disciplined. Life is like that. When you want to dance you have to learn how to make your feet fly. You have to devote your life to it."

Vaudeville is gone, so where does one go to devote one's life to the song-and-dance tradition? Reynolds said summer stock and civic light opera get the job done.

"Those kids are out there stomping their toes," she said. "Talent never goes away -- it's just thwarted."

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