Elia Kazan was a man of large talents, large ambitions, and large appetites, and he deserves a book that reflects both his achievements and his complicated passage through life. Luckily, he has one—his own extraordinary autobiography. A Life, published in 1988, is a relentless attempt to make you understand him, and to help him understand himself. It’s proud, self-lacerating, provocative, and—even when you feel you’re being manipulated—convincing. It’s also very long. (I was his editor, so you can blame me.)
Now there’s a new book about Kazan by the film critic Richard Schickel, who’s also written about Cary Grant (A Celebration), James Cagney (another Celebration), Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, and D.W. Griffith (his best work)—a score of books in all. Schickel is industrious and well-intentioned, but he has two strikes against him: he’s an undistinguished writer, and he’s up against Kazan himself. In his author’s note, he forthrightly acknowledges that his book
offers no more insight into Elia Kazan’s personal life than he himself offered in his own autobiography, on which I have relied for many details of his day-to-day existence. It is a wonderful work—one of the truly great theatrical autobiographies.
And, indeed, those parts of his book that attempt to recreate Kazan’s harrowing life (who could resist?) read like a pale reduction of Kazan’s own blistering account. Still, readers who don’t want to commit themselves to the almost 850 pages of A Life will find the basic story in these mere five hundred–plus pages.
The main focus on Kazan in recent years has been on his film work—most of his movies are easily available, and film studies have become a basic part of higher education. Not many young people, however, are studying theater history, not only because once plays close there’s nothing left of them except scripts, memories, and reviews, but also because, in the last half-century, theater has ceded its preeminence in our culture. A lot of us can readily identify Kazan as the director of Gentleman’s Agreement or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or America America, to say nothing of On the Waterfront and the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire, but who remembers that he directed a big Helen Hayes Broadway hit, Harriet, about Harriet Beecher Stowe? Or the smash Kurt Weill musical One Touch of Venus? Or the charming Jacobowsky and the Colonel, adapted by Sam Behrman from Franz Werfel? (It ran for a year.) Or even his most important early success, Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, which was the occasion for Kazan’s titanic clashes during rehearsals with Tallulah Bankhead? (“I could see from the glint in the bitch’s eye that she smelled blood.”)
A virtue of Schickel’s book is that he takes us through the theater career, first writing at length, if not with much new insight, about Kazan’s association with the Group Theater in the Thirties—from his early years as actor/stage manager/general dogsbody for the Gods of the Group (Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Cheryl…
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