A giant of the theater as man of letters.
May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By MALCOLM FORBES
In November 1953, while shooting On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan wrote a tetchy letter to producer Sam Spiegel in which he grouched about creative differences and hard practicalities such as budget and schedule. “Every once in a while you may get a letter from me,” runs his pre-salvo lead-in. “Its [sic] a more exact way to communicate,—when I want to be exact.”
Tennessee Williams, Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller in New York (1967)
Kazan, who was famous for his close collaborations with casts, crews, and scriptwriters, found he could be most “exact” in typed correspondence. In many ways, his letter to Spiegel is representative of the hundreds Kazan wrote. Gripes are pertinent and cogent. Praise is given, even lavished, when deserved. Directorial decisions are well-argued. Plot detail and character tics are rigorously explained and scrutinized from various angles. Passion for his craft is palpable—as is any bubbling-up of anger, which, consistently, is tempered towards the sign-off with apology, justification, or pledges of continuing love (in one letter: “Yours with continued love, a little less, temporarily, but still”). Apostrophe usage is arbitrary.
Of course, Kazan’s letters were not all work. Play is recorded in personal and family letters. Both types are on show here. Of the 1,200 letters Kazan wrote, around 300 have been selected and edited by Albert J. Devlin and Marlene J. Devlin. Notable addressees include Tennessee Williams (“Tenn”), Arthur Miller (“Artie”), Marlon Brando, and Robert De Niro. Each letter comes tagged with a concise editorial commentary that elucidates and puts in context what we have just read. Ranging chronologically over 600 pages, and charting Kazan’s rise as one of the most influential directors of American stage and screen, the letters begin with one from 1925 in which Kazan, at 15, whines to a former teacher about his father. They culminate with him at 78, declaring to his daughter that he was “fed up, worn out, sated” from working on his autobiography: “I’ve had it, as they say.”
The first sections depict Kazan still-to-get-it. Early letters reveal his acting apprentice-work with the Group Theatre and his burgeoning disgruntlement at its organization. Change is necessary within and without. “The theatre in New York is not dead,” he tells Clifford Odets in 1937, insisting as ever on the British spelling. “The theatre in New York is dying and at the same time being reborn.” Several months later, he is bewailing the fact that “There is no playwright in the country who is really in touch with reality.” When he starts directing, he pens letters to whole casts, criticizing one hapless bunch for their “dutiful” performance and urging them to see method acting as the only way forward.
Once Broadway (“a scurvy thing”) beckons, Kazan is plagued with self-doubt about his achievements and longs for “the main chance, the possibility for something real and enduring.” That comes in 1947, with Williams’s request that Kazan direct A Streetcar Named Desire; two years later, after taking on and triumphing with Death of a Salesman, Kazan’s reputation is cemented.
With the 1950s comes the switch in medium, from plays to films, and Oscar-winning success for the film adaptations of Streetcar (1951), Waterfront (1954), and East of Eden (1955). It is in this decade that Kazan truly asserts himself in print, whether in fighting his corner to newspaper editors after lukewarm reviews or in zealously pitching new projects to moguls like Darryl Zanuck and John D. Rockefeller III. Some of his judgments are misfires (“Can’t get over the feeling that Brando is WRONG”); others are prescient (“I’m for Paul Newman. This boy will definitely be a film star”).
However, the fifties were also the time of Kazan’s professional nadir. One letter from 1952, to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, shows him revising his previous testimony and outing Communists he worked with in his Group Theatre days. The incriminating affidavit is not included, but the letter is proof enough of Kazan’s supposed perfidy. Follow-up letters in which he seeks to justify his actions (“what I did was necessary and right”) nevertheless cost him key pen-pals in the film industry.
The later years touch on forays into novel-writing and inspire more ruminative letters on his accomplishments to family members. Throughout, family correspondence neatly counterbalances the letters concerning working life, and together they allow us to see two markedly different sides of the same man. It is in his letters to his first wife, Molly Day Thacher, that Kazan provides his most personal, heart-on-sleeve outpourings—not to mention lines of self-confessed shortcomings. One would appear to be a prioritizing of guilt: In a reply to Molly’s “last letters of abuse and love,” Kazan apologizes for name-calling but not for his affair with the starlet Constance Dowling. (The editors note that they have silently corrected Kazan’s repeated misspelling of “marraige.” With this in mind, it is tempting to believe his union was doomed from the start.)
While Kazan’s letters shine a light on crucial milestones, from births and deaths to films and plays in various stages of production, they also illuminate those around him, particularly the unknowns whose careers he nurtured. James Dean, we hear, is “inventive and true,” while Brando is “surly and introverted” but also “the best actor we have.” Warren Beatty possesses “tremendous determination.” Kazan is just as profuse with his wrath: Tight-fisted theater owner-producer Lee Shubert is a “fetid cadaver”; Hollywood a “dreary ass hole”; A Man for All Seasons “pure English pansy Theatre, cool, unreal, boring.”
The person he has the most to say about is the one to whom he writes the most: Tennessee Williams, “the kindest of men.” As Kazan writes more frequently, and with greater depth, we trace the transition from working relationship into solid friendship. Better still is being able to witness the journey from rough-draft “kitchen sink” scripts to finished, polished productions. Kazan’s dramaturgical and psychological insight, revealed through page upon page of critique, helps “unify” Williams’s Camino Real and The Rose Tattoo, whereas his coach-like support and marshaling spirit buoy Williams out of his many moments of despair.
After we have finished trawling these letters, who is the Elia Kazan that emerges? Certainly a less guarded incarnation than the self-portrait sketched in his 1988 memoir, A Life. Here we meet a flawed husband, a loving father, a loyal friend, and a consummate professional who admits to getting “awful intense . . . in fact, obsessed” with his work. Kazan was a perfectionist who believed in “spiritual propinquity” when casting, who approved of theatrical tradition but would “stiffen” at style, and who wouldn’t suffer fools or compromise in attaining his vision—fighting studio bigwigs and censors both to keep the pivotal rape scene in Streetcar and to represent the brothel in East of Eden as “drab, evil and dull.”
“Trust my instinct,” he tells Jack Warner. “‘I’m known as the Greek Barnum and I care like a son of a bitch.”
But he also doubts. Self-deprecation alternates with gushing positivity. “My work has not been rewarding or rewarded or even good,” he tells Odets in 1958. Kazan’s letter to John Steinbeck two years later finds him worrying over his nickname, Gadget, and its implication of “ever-ready compliance, a subservient, scattershot friendliness and an adaptability which made it possible for me to be the ‘necessary’ thing to any man.” Candid, cutting, affectionate, and often lyrical, these letters may not always endear us to their writer, but they add to our understanding and appreciation of a unique talent.