The Magazine

Truth Teller

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

Aug 21, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 46 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.