By Daniel Barnes
Throughout his long career, Elia Kazan was often defined by his work with actors. A professional stage actor and director before becoming an award-winning Hollywood filmmaker, Kazan was one of the foremost cinematic proponents of the “Actor’s Studio” method and style, and he played a big hand in introducing James Dean, Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Eli Wallach, and many other influential actors to larger audiences. So it’s probably fitting that one of his most grandiose failures, the bloated and chaotic three-hour epic America, America, was filmed using mostly nonprofessional actors.
Kazan based America, America on an oft-told family story about his Turkish uncle’s tumultuous attempts to immigrate to America, so perhaps his emotional closeness to the material clouded his capacity for self-editing. For all of the film’s good intentions and pictorial beauty (Haskell Wexler was the director of photography), it’s a complete mess, and features such jarring and inept lurches in tone, style, pace, and meaning, I was shocked that the legendary Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde) served as the editor. Not that I blame Ms. Allen – I can only imagine the self-indulgent clutter that she inherited in the editing room.
Urgency is picked up and dropped like a hot potato, motivation changes multiple times within the same sequence, and we are treated to scene after uncomfortable scene of actors unable to connect with each other. Besides the nonprofessionals, Kazan mixes in a few great old professionals like John Marley and Joanna Frank into smaller roles, but they’re so much slicker than everyone else on screen that they actually feel fake. Kazan’s dialogue is even phonier, and the characters deliver speeches to each other as though they had already read their own script notes. “After a while, you don’t feel the shame,” says Stavros’ collaborator father, because that’s how people talked back then.
The leisurely paced film follows Turkish-born Greek boy Stavros, a passionate young man who dreams only of going to America. When the ethnic strife in their Anatolian homeland intensifies, Stavros is loaded with all of the valuable family possessions and sent to Constantinople, ostensibly to set himself up in business but always with America foremost in his mind. Stavros is guileless and soft, and so he becomes an easy victim of swindlers and thieves, especially during a long altercation with a talky con man played by Lou Antonio that is one of the film’s many empty side streets. Despite employing a conventional narrative, there is a formlessness to the film that eventually turns it into a chore, and we can sense these disjointed sequences slipping out of Kazan’s grasp.
Arriving penniless in Constantinople, the exploits of Stavros become almost Dickensian in their twisting fortunes and overall farfetchedness, although the film is no more compelling for it. As Stavros, a character that appears in almost every scene of the film, the bland Greek actor Stathis Giallelis is simply an unconquerable hurdle for the film’s emotional ambitions. Stavros becomes a carpet salesman, a destitute manual laborer, a gold digger, and a playboy in his desperate quest to earn his transoceanic fare, and over the course of the film he shifts in personality from impetuous innocence to cynical callousness to punchdrunk hope. Unfortunately, Giallelis isn’t capable of conveying those subtle transformations – he’s more like a child actor repeating his lines – and so a consistent emotional investment in the film becomes practically impossible.