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Force of Nature

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 Crawford) to his eventual emergence as a successful Broadway director. It’s useful to be instructed about Kazan’s early efforts, although much of this material reads like nose-to-the-grindstone homework. We learn, for instance, that Helen Hayes, set in her implacably adorable ways, couldn’t perform with the spontaneity Kazan demanded of his actors, although she tried, and that Agnes de Mille, who provided the brilliant choreography for One Touch of Venus, found that Kazan “had no visual sense…no eyes at all. He had a wonderful ear, though, not for music, but for speech.” (Kazan on de Mille: “The most strong-minded stage artist I’ve known.”) And it came as a surprise, at least to me, that during the war he directed something called It’s Up to You, sponsored by the Department of Agriculture. (Kazan devotes only a short paragraph to it in A Life, without bothering to name it.) This unlikely venture (it featured Woody Guthrie) “was designed to enhance public support of rationing and to rally it against black marketeering,” and for our amusement Schickel quotes from it this stirring bit of agitprop:

The man behind the plow is the man behind the gun
Farmer, save democracy.
Farmer, save civilization.
Farmer, save the world

All these productions took place before the first play for which Kazan is still more or less remembered, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, almost a decade into his directing career. I remember how impressed I was with it as a kid back in 1946, although today the play reads like (badly) watered-down Ibsen, in particular An Enemy of the People. What actually happened on stage, though—as Joe Keller, guilty of shipping defective equipment to the Air Force (resulting in the death of his pilot son), is exposed to the world and to his grieving family—was excitingly confrontational and alive; Kazan got more out of the play than was there. His earlier successes had relied on the charisma of established stars—Bankhead, Hayes, Mary Martin; in All My Sons he elicited gripping performances from non-star actors like Ed Begley, Karl Malden, and Arthur Kennedy. Other directors could stage star vehicles effectively, but Miller’s play wasn’t a star vehicle, and it alerted everyone to Kazan’s extraordinary ability to prod or hypnotize actors into surpassing their previous work.

It was, however, the stage version of Streetcar, in 1947, that conclusively set him apart from other directors. Naturally, Schickel deals with it at length, quoting liberally from Kazan’s incisive and instructive notes. The biggest problem he faced while the play was in production stemmed from the electrifying performance the almost unknown Marlon Brando was giving as Stanley Kowalski, totally overshadowing that of the first Blanche Dubois, Jessica Tandy. She was an accomplished actress—careful, hardworking, honest—but she was up against the most thrilling new actor Broadway had seen since…since whom? John Barrymore? Brando was incandescent. “What would I say to Brando?” asked Kazan in his book: “Be less good? Or to Jessie? Get better?”

Ironically, when Streetcar opened in New York, most of the reviews concentrated on Tandy, who was the official star. But it was Brando who made the overwhelming impact on both the audience and theater people. Overnight, he became a byword. When I saw the production soon after it opened, Brando was mesmerizing, shattering. No one doubted that he would have the greatest of careers—here, at last, was the American theater’s answer to Olivier and Gielgud. Who could have imagined that Streetcar would be his last performance on the stage? In retrospect, one can see that Brando’s abandonment of the theater was a crucial foreshadowing of what would become Hollywood’s conclusive ascendency over Broadway.

It seems to me, trying to reconstruct a performance I saw fifty-odd years ago, that Kazan’s direction of Streetcar was exquisitely evocative of its time and place as well as being perfectly balanced—not only in winning sympathy for both Blanche, even at her most maddening, and Stanley, even at his most brutal, but in harmonizing the play’s impulses toward realism and poetry. (Kazan knew he had to do this: “This is a poetic tragedy,” he wrote in his notebook, “not a realistic or a naturalistic one.”) Certainly he sympathized with Blanche’s fragility and desperation, but he could also identify with Stanley’s inarticulate force and assertive sexuality, which is what made it possible for us to do so, too. Post-Kazan, Streetcar has become a vehicle for divas, with Stanley reduced to the boorish instrument of Blanche’s destruction. The change began immediately, when Harold Clurman was given the job of directing the road company and, wrote Kazan, turned the play into a “moral fable”—

a play of the thirties, when we in the Group blamed everything on the System and never on anything in ourselves. We would bemoan our alienation rather than accept what Williams accepted, that there was a tragic element in life itself.

Kazan had moved on; Clurman (and Strasberg) never did.

The production that sealed Kazan’s reputation (and Arthur Miller’s) was Death of a Salesman in 1949. It ran on and on, won all the prizes, and was even a best seller when the text was published. It was considered Important. (The other best-selling play of the period was T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party.) But even back then there were those who thought it inflated and unspecific. Mary McCarthy, that acerb and brilliant theater critic, found Willy Loman to be “a capitalized Human Being, without being anyone…demanding a statistical attention and generalized, impersonal condolence, like that of the editorial page.” Louis Kronenberger wrote in Time, “The idea of the play is everywhere more moving than the play itself.” That, as it happens, was my own view too, but again—as with All My Sons—the intensity of Kazan’s staging and his uncanny ability to extract extraordinary performances from his actors almost succeeded in masking the thinness of Miller’s thinking and the pretentiousness of his prose.

Having in fairness acknowledged the negative voices, Schickel goes on to defend the play against straw men (that is, intellectuals and academics):

When an artful, emotionally sound work reaches out beyond its ruling conventions, reaches out across the years, across all kinds of geographical divisions (and Salesman has been successfully performed everywhere from Communist China to beleaguered Israel), niggling questions about form tend to be obviated. Why should we care about the maintenance of, say, the classical unities or about the nobility of the protagonist or the nature of his fall from grace? Why, indeed, should we care if the vehicle taking up these matters is, technically, a tragedy at all—if we are moved by it to silence, tears or long, long thoughts? The thing simply is.

If this kind of inflated writing and specious argument appears to you to be serious and effective criticism, then Schickel’s book is the book for you.

And while we’re on the subject of his prose: countless sentences and phrases are maddeningly off-key or badly clichéd. “There were, of course, love affairs that caused teapot tempests.” “He invoked no high, wide or handsome principles.” People strut their stuff, snivel in reply, are modest to a fault, beam approval, are awash with talent. The text is peppered with irritating authorial hiccups: “It must be said,” “Be that as it may,” “It is not too much to say,” “If you will,” and, most insistently, “Frankly” and “Of course.” (“Of course,” of course, is the lazy writer’s crutch; I stopped counting after registering twenty-five of them.) But the book’s strangest and most damaging technical failing is the frustrating—the disastrous—lack of a formal filmography and list of stage productions. What can Schickel and his publisher have been thinking?

This lack makes it particularly difficult to track the career, given that during the years of Kazan’s greatest success, he was practically alternating hit movies and hit plays—unlike Brando, he never abandoned Broadway for Hollywood. The films A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Boomerang, Gentleman’s Agreement all precede Broadway’s Streetcar and Salesman, and his work in the theater continued on through his later years as a top film director, with Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth, Robert Anderson’s sentimental Tea and Sympathy, William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Archibald MacLeish’s ponderous J.B. There were also three productions for the ill-conceived Lincoln Center repertory company: Miller’s After the Fall, Sam Behrman’s But For Whom, Charlie, and Kazan’s one (disastrous) stab at classic theater, the Jacobean melodrama The Changeling. All this theater work was going on while he was directing the movie of Streetcar, Viva Zapata, On the Waterfront, Splendor in the Grass, and the rest. There has never been a career like it. (Mike Nichols comes closest.)

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