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
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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.