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Truth Teller

The director who acted in the drama of the 20th century.

Aug 21, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 46 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Elia Kazan

A Biography

by Richard Schickel

HarperCollins, 544 pp., $29.95

Elia Kazan has always been hot, in my book, because he did two great things: He directed On the Waterfront (1954), one of the best American movies ever made, and he stood up to the (then, as now) irritatingly ultra-left Hollywood establishment in 1952, when he gave the House Un-American Activities Committee the names of eight Communists in the entertainment industry whom he'd known back in the 1930s.

As Richard Schickel points out, Kazan neither knew nor liked any of them anymore, and he hadn't cared much for them even back then. I've never been able to understand what was supposed to be wrong with what Kazan did. If you've ever read Waiting for Lefty, a dreary, formulaic piece of 1930s stage agit-prop--it's described on Wikipedia as being about "taxi drivers, from a Marxist perspective"--you'd want to denounce its author, Clifford Odets, too. Furthermore, Kazan's cooperation with HUAC earned him a lifetime of vituperation from Lillian Hellman, which is in itself a feather in his cap.

To his credit, Schickel, who has been movie critic for Time since time out of mind, was instrumental, along with Waterfront star Karl Malden, in arranging for Kazan, who was by then 89 years old and frail both physically and mentally (he died in 2003), to receive an honorary Oscar in 1999 over an opposition campaign that included: personal attacks by less grateful Waterfront star Rod Steiger (who implied to the press that Kazan was responsible for the heart attack of one of the eight names, even though the man was dead before Kazan offered his testimony, and the suicide of another Red whose name was not on Kazan's list); a huge anti-Kazan ad in Variety bought by the screenwriters' guild; screams from a gauntlet of picketers bearing signs reading "Kazan Is a Rat"; and the stony faces of about a quarter of the celebrities in the Academy Awards audience, who probably confused Kazan's eight Communists with their favorite political martyrs, the Hollywood Ten (a completely different group booted from the studios in 1947) and were determined to demonstrate à la George Clooney their courage and solidarity on behalf of a political cause that had been dead for half a century.

Kazan never could understand why the Communist party, which claimed to be no more than an idealistic political organization, had a right to keep the names of its members a secret, and, in any event, as Schickel and many others have demonstrated, most of the Red idealists of the 1930s and '40s were, in fact, either active Soviet spies or willing to become so.

The lifetime achievement award was richly deserved, as Kazan's films had won 22 real Oscars (including Best Director twice, for Waterfront and 1947's Gentlemen's Agreement) and 62 nominations in a 40-year career that also included many equally busy years on the Broadway stage. Elia Kazan essentially discovered the playwrights Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, directing the initial Broadway performances of All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire (along with its 1951 film version), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth. He also discovered Marlon Brando, whose Kazan-directed cris de coeur--"I coulda been a contender" (On the Waterfront) and "Stellaaaaaah!" (A Streetcar Named Desire)--are firmly entrenched in the mimicry of actors, professional and amateur, to this very day.

One of Kazan's prize discoveries was James Dean. He cast the nearly experience-free and startlingly foul-mouthed young actor in a 1955 film adaptation of John Steinbeck's East of Eden on the basis of a ride on the back of Dean's motorcyle. On the Warner Brothers set, Dean mumbled and muffed his lines and antagonized the other actors. Kazan, tired of Dean's propensity to show up for a day's shoot "looking wasted," moved Dean and himself into two bedrooms in an oversized star dressing room on the Eden set "Through the night [Dean] alternately boffed and fought with his current amour, the actress Pier Angeli, keeping his boss awake and irritated," writes Schickel, who was also on the set as a young journalist writing a story about the production.

As Schickel himself admits, his main interest in writing this "critical biography," as he calls it, was in Kazan's professional, not his personal, life. To that end, Kazan granted Schickel several long interviews before he died and also access to the notes and jottings (archived at Wesleyan University) that he made for every play and movie he directed. And that, along with Schickel's habit of interjecting his own political opinions gratuitously into the narrative, is the main problem with this book. It reads too much like an expansion of all those notes and jottings, every single one of them, for every single play and movie in which Kazan was involved.

Does one really want to read a complete plot summary of Thunder Rock, a Kazan-directed 1939 play set in a lighthouse in the middle of Lake Michigan and culminating with this Hitler-Stalin Pact-era speech: "America's not going to war; she's got a bigger job than war"? I think not. The first third of Schickel's book thus makes for slow going as Schickel dutifully trudges past every milestone of Kazan's theatrical apprenticeship in New York as an actor, and later, as a director, after graduating from Williams in 1930 and putting in two degree-less postgraduate years at the Yale Drama School.

It is not until Schickel reaches the 1940s, when Kazan had his first Broadway hit with The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), a Thornton Wilder opus about the history of the world that is almost as dated as Thunder Rock but was regarded as deep literature back then, and his first Hollywood success with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) that Schickel's book finally becomes anecdote-rich and engrossing. Who doesn't want to read about the time Skin of Our Teeth star Tallulah Bankhead, a loudmouthed attention hog who regularly missed rehearsals and entrances, took a break from her efforts to get Kazan, whom she hated, fired from the production and jumped into his bed during the Baltimore tryouts--only to find it already occupied by a younger actress he had his eye on?

The problem with Schickel's book is that the "critical"--that is, the professional--aspect of Elia Kazan's life cannot be divorced from the personal aspect to which Schickel pays minimal attention. It seems clear from the dollops that Schickel does feed his readers that every facet of Kazan's career as a director--from his signature gritty, neorealistic film style, to his flirtation and eventual disenchantment with communism, to his propensity to work with relative unknowns such as Brando, Dean, Warren Beatty, star of Kazan's Splendor in the Grass (1961), and even Malden, to his almost invariable casting of blondes, who reminded him of the unattainable Anglo-Saxons his Williams classmates dated, as his leading ladies as well as all three of his wives--had its roots in Kazan's combative, conflicted, perpetually antagonistic personality.

In turn, the crucible of that personality was Kazan's gnarled relationship with his father, the harsh, authoritarian, and unloving Anatolian Greek immigrant and carpet merchant George Kazanjiouglou. Schickel describes the elder Kazanjiouglou (whose nearly unpronounceable surname he and his family soon shortened) as a terrifying figure who demanded absolute obedience from his wife and children and was even, in old age, "capable of making his famous son tremble."

Kazan himself Schickel describes as a "fierce and needy" young man, and so he remained throughout his life. A dark-skinned outsider at waspish Williams, Kazan projected this template of class conflict, and also the template of his perpetual struggle to assert his will against his father's, onto all relationships, his own and those that he perceived as shaping society at large. This, surely, was the attraction of the Communist party to the young Kazan. From 1934 to 1936 he belonged to a secret Communist cell for Manhattan theater people, but the party's demands for conformity and obedience undoubtedly chafed as much as had his father's.

At the time he was acting and directing in the Group Theater, whose members included Odets and "Method" pioneer Lee Strasberg, a lifelong friend of Kazan's who was not a party member (although his wife was). The Group modeled itself on the Soviet Union's Moscow Arts Theater and specialized in highly ideological socialist-realist plays that typically ended with shouted "workers of the world!" manifestoes and that few people, even during the Depression, wanted to see.

Kazan remained a lifelong leftist and self-perceived social rebel. His status as artist enabled him to play the perpetual rumpled-haired outsider. But, as he became successful, he fell out with the Group and its slavish obeisance to whatever Stalinist line happened to come down from Moscow. (It was the Group whose Communist members' names Kazan turned over to HUAC in 1952.)

Kazan's independent temperament also led him to dislike working with stars--Bankhead was the most obnoxious example--whom he deemed too set in their acting styles to be amenable to the strong ideas he had about the craft. He preferred to nurture the careers of less famous actors, and he even cast unknowns off the street in small roles in his films. Influenced by Strasberg's Method principles, Kazan believed that actors ought to infuse the characters they played with their own emotions, and to that end he would deliberately provoke those emotions, chiefly anger.

On the set of East of Eden, for example, he cultivated, even goaded, the mutual loathing that already existed between the obscenity-spouting Dean and Raymond Massey, a decorous, Republican-voting old-school actor who played Dean's hostile father in the film. "Do you think I'd kill that?" Kazan asked Schickel during the filming. In his notes, Kazan concocted tangled Oedipal back stories for the characters in the plays and films he directed.

Kazan's love life was equally tempestuous. His first marriage, to a Yale Drama School classmate and off-and-on playwright Molly Day Thacher, lasted 31 years and produced four children; but the cerebral Molly could not satisfy his yearning for high personal drama. From the beginning, there were numerous affairs, some brief and superficial, some lengthy and romantic. After Molly died in 1963, Kazan contracted two subsequent marriages, a distinctly unhappy one with the actress Barbara Loden (by whom he had fathered a child while married to Molly) and, after Loden's death in 1980, a happier union with Frances Rudge, former wife of Peter Rudge, manager of the Rolling Stones.

Kazan was thus perfectly suited in temperament to the melodramatic writing and larger-than-life characterizations that characterized the plays of both Miller and Williams, and made all three iconic presences in mid-century theater. As with his actors, Kazan helped shape their work, demanding, for example, that Williams substantially rewrite (or else rewriting himself) the sketchy first drafts that Williams typically submitted.

In Williams's first draft of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the most interesting character, Big Daddy, had simply disappeared after the second act. As for Miller, Kazan not only introduced him to his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, but shared her sexual favors--she was a blonde, after all--until Miller and Monroe got serious after a brief hiatus from her marriage to Joe DiMaggio. Miller was a cookie-cutter left-wing ideologue (as we know from his witch-hunting potboiler The Crucible), and he and Kazan had a rocky time of it after the latter decided to cooperate with HUAC, although they continued to work together intermittently. But it was not until late in both their lives that Miller publicly turned against Kazan and accused him and Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg of stealing the plot of The Hook, another high-ideology Miller potboiler with a dockworker theme.

On the Waterfront represented the apotheosis of everything that had ever stirred Kazan ideologically and artistically: Its grainy black-and-white cinematography, heavily influenced by Italian neorealism (the film was shot, during a punishing winter, on the Brooklyn docks where it was set); its cast of relative unknowns, including many amateurs; its working-class story limned in Catholic iconography; and especially its central conflict, which eerily recapitulates Kazan's experiences with HUAC and the subsequent wrath of the entertainment-industry Reds, here represented by a corrupt union against whose racketeer bosses the Marlon Brando character testifies to the FBI.

Waterfront was a popular and critical success, but the left, including its New Left avatars in university film-history departments, has never gotten over Kazan's making a villain out of a labor union.

After Splendor in the Grass, Kazan's directing career went into swift and severe decline. There were major debacles: America, America (1963), in which he tried to put his Anatolian-immigrant experience onto the screen; and his last film, a disastrous 1976 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, that wasted the talents of Robert De Niro and a host of others. There was the fiasco of his mid-1960s stint as director of the then-new Lincoln Center repertory company, in which Kazan tried to import Method techniques into Jacobean melodramas such as Thomas Middleton's and William Rowley's The Changeling. Abruptly fired by the Lincoln Center board in 1964, Kazan began writing long, semi-autobiographical novels that sold well but are nowadays unread and regarded as unreadable.

Molly's death was a terrible blow, and the death of one of his sons in 1993 was unendurable. By then Kazan was well along in the arteriosclerosis of the brain that ultimately rendered him incompetent, although he managed with the last of his ferocious energy to turn out an autobiography. His last years were pathetic: Nearly deaf, he sat at his typewriter in his Manhattan brownstone and pretended to write, although nothing much emerged.

Elia Kazan was a giant of the American theater and American film, and when its 20th-century history is finally shaped and put into context, his will be one of the few names to be remembered, although his heyday was brief. He was also a man of astounding courage in bucking a conformist hard-left entertainment establishment that, to this day, has both Hollywood and Broadway in a hammerlock.

Schickel's book does not quite do Kazan justice. It does, however, honor his achievements, as Hollywood still will not. And that is something for which I, at least, am more than grateful.

Charlotte Allen is the author, most recently, of The Human Christ.