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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.