If manners can be said to serve as the mask of self-interest, then charming manners require that one create the illusion of interest in others. Most show-business people are determined to be charming, but whatever Elia Kazan’s appeal in person (and from his own mouth one hears of much loyalty, many friendships), Kazan, as author, is ill-mannered, self-serving, and charmless. Now seventy-eight, Kazan has apparently kept note, through a long and very busy life, of every longing, slight, setback, and disappointment—and also of every rose of satisfaction. In A Life, he recalls some momentary defeat fifty-five years ago with the fresh outrage of unearned rebuff; he recounts a moment at a young actress’s side as happily as a kid at camp who scores with a pretty girl on the first day of the summer.
Absurdly garrulous, and often coarse to the point of moral unconsciousness, Kazan tells so much—airing other people’s critical opinions of his behavior as well as his own self-explanations and doubts—that he almost asks us to catch him fibbing, evading. He may be an egotist, but he is not vain, and his autobiography, for all its loutish demand on our patience, is also a soulful portrait of a man flailing about in a thicket of desire and guilt. Admitting his weaknesses and miseries, Kazan can be touching—a man longing to be a hero but uneasily aware that he may be a clown.
The book is not so much written as compiled. What makes it unusual, however, is Kazan’s apparent conviction that rawness is itself a virtue. “After my family returned to New York to get the kids back to school [they had been visiting him on location], I bunked with a gentle, generous young woman who’d recently given birth; when we made love, her milk was all over my chest.” A man of no ordinary foolishness wrote that awful sentence: the milk on his chest is both a badge of triumph and a challenge to the squeamish. Though of less artistic interest, A Life has the same pressured, slightly embarrassing emotional charge as Kazan’s movies. The book offers the comic spectacle of an insatiable and shameless man. Part of the comedy is that while Kazan often sees himself as an artist driving for fulfillment, the reader is constantly amazed by, and sometimes admiring of, Kazan’s astonishingly adroit careerism.
A Life is wonderfully instructive as an account of an American on the make. A powerful figure for years in both theater and film, Kazan was always watching, keeping his opinion to himself, charging in, winning or taking a beating, then, without much hesitation, picking himself up and moving on. He attained great success while remaining personally invulnerable—invisible almost—until the House Committee on Un-American Activities forced him, in 1952, to show his hand. He betrayed himself and others on that occasion, but then, in an astounding turnaround, used the ugly new cast of his personality to create his first distinctive work in the movies.
Assertive and crestfallen, he openly craves our approval. Early on, pulling at our sympathy, Kazan establishes the myth of himself. His people were Anatolian Greeks—that is, Greeks living in Turkey, and, like Jews under the czar, fearful, conciliatory, and cunning. The men, trying to “pass,” spoke Turkish and wore the Mohammedan fez; they depended on the mercy of their masters, accepting humiliation as a necessity of survival. The way out was emigration to America. Kazan’s uncle, Avraam Elia “Joe” Kazanjioglou, whose story Kazan later told in America America, went first, establishing the family rug business in New York. Later his father, Yiorgos “George” Kazan, followed, and sent for his family. At the age of four, just beforeWorld War I, Kazan was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
According to Kazan, his father was a censorious and aloof man who never read a book. (Kazan says he has hated only two people in his life; the other person was…Tallulah Bankhead.) Fighting to establish himself in the face of his father’s contempt, he became a crafty and calculating Anatolian in his own house. The odds against victory were steep. At his father’s Fifth Avenue rug store, where Kazan was forced to work during summer vacations, George Kazan would praise to his customers the size of his nephew’s—not his son’s—penis. This indignity compounded a more serious worry. At the age of fourteen, he tells us, he contracted mumps, and the infection settled into his scrotum; by the end of the disease, one testicle had withered and died. He was short, bowlegged, he had a big nose and a big rump. He had one ball. At school, and later at Williams College, which he attended against his father’s wishes, he lusted after girls, but only in secret.
Reading of this dolorous childhood in the way Kazan partly intends it to be read—as a warrant for later revenge—one grows a little suspicious. He tells us, for instance, that his problems with girls at school and college led to a desire to “score” that could be satisfied in later years only by pursuing the same type of blond, beautiful woman—generically, shiksas—that he had earlier failed with, or by taking women away from other men, particularly from good-looking actors or successful screenwriters. (In the case of Marilyn Monroe, however, he sounds pleased to have passed her on to his friend Arthur Miller and to have slept with her while she was considering Joe DiMaggio’s proposal.)
But revenge can hardly account for all the fun he had. The book offers a proud and happy accounting of many quick boffs in limousines and hotels and dressing rooms (on the floor, before the matinee) as well as much lolling by swimming pools and within the breezecaressed bungalows of Beverly Hills. Less a great sinner than a garden-variety cad, Kazan made a habit, for decades, of exploiting his power over young actresses. A few years after college, he married an accomplished girl from a good Yankee family, Molly Day Thacher, who seems to have assured him of his sexual powers and his sense of his worth as a person, but his pursuit of young actresses never stopped; in fact, it increased. That some of the bundling may have been just for the fun of it, he doesn’t admit. In his own eyes, he was a loser and an outcast screwing his way into the winner’s circle.
After two years at the Yale Drama School, he left, dissatisfied, in 1932. “A saturnine young man of uncertain race,” he was given a tryout by the revolutionary company that Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, and Lee Strasberg had recently formed in New York, the Group Theater. He loved the Group’s left-bohemian seriousness and informality, and he stayed within its orbit until the end of the decade. But judging by his account, one finds it hard to believe that after the first couple of years he put much faith in the company’s charged sense of purpose. From Harold Clurman’s sensitive history of the Group, The Fervent Years (1945), one gets a clearer and more impassioned idea of the strenuous ethical project Kazan had joined and of the mixed naiveté and belief that made the experience so intoxicating.
Falling, at first, under Strasberg’s spell, Kazan quickly developed reservations about the great teacher’s dictatorial and self-protecting way of imposing the “Method” on young actors, and he seems to have been interested less in the visions of the effusive Clurman than in impressing him with his own abilities. Here was a brilliant family with two disapproving fathers: he had to break into it. He was initially deemed untalented as an actor but was admitted to the permanent company when it became clear that he could set lights and build or repair anything backstage, a facility that earned him the nickname “Gadget,” or “Gadge.” From the beginning, he despised the name for what it revealed of his willingness to make himself useful to others. Amiable and compliant on the surface, he developed what can be amiability’s internal echoes—anger, self-disgust, resentment.
His temperament, perhaps, would have led him to join a right-wing political movement. But in New York he was surrounded by left-wing actors and intellectuals. And so he visited dye plants in Paterson, went to the new Soviet films, and in the summer of 1934 joined the Communist party, becoming a member of a secret cell of actors within the Group. What can now be scarcely understood is that in 1934 Party membership could advance a young man’s career in the theater. Kazan insists now that he was not then—or ever—genuinely political in his interests or instincts; and one can see that Party discipline was alien to a young man of his tumultuous ambition.
A theater person looking for a role, onstage and off, he found one in Clifford Odets’s early plays, with their expansive atmosphere of outrage, revolt, and hot assent, all of it rendered in an inflated rhetorical style crossed with the comically rumpled street slang of lower-middle-class Jews. The high-minded sentiment of Odets’s plays fired Kazan with the yearning for an American reality “not printed on dollar bills.”
Kazan’s part in that warming cultural moment is now tainted with a sickening irony. For it was no other than Gadget who ran on stage at the end of Waiting for Lefty to announce that Lefty had been murdered, rousing the actors (and then the audience) to their cry of “Strike! Strike! Strike!” His appearance caused New Masses to dub him “Proletarian Thunderbolt,” and there he is, clenched fists upraised, on the cover of the latest paperback edition of The Fervent Years,1 standing among some of the actors he named to the HUAC seventeen years later. Irony, however, is not within Kazan’s temperamental range. Blandly, he recounts the opening-night triumph. “Oh, the balcony, the people in cheap seats, how they cheered!… That was the dream all of us in the Group had—to be embraced that way by a theatreful of people.” The memory of applause effaces everything else.
Despite the initial low estimate of his talents, Kazan succeeded as an actor. Playing gangsters and tough guys, he became a cult favorite, and even impressed Stark Young, the most discriminating critic of the time. But the value of acting for him, Kazan says, was that onstage he could drop the feigned sweetness and docility and express instead the anger he was feeling inside. A 1935 photograph is revealing of the public Kazan. The eyes have a liquid pathos, almost heartbreaking. He has a high forehead and a long and narrow face, its melancholy attenuation softened by a large nose and sensual mouth. It is a face as homely and plaintive as that of a young Talmudic scholar. Only much later, after many triumphs, did he become an imposing figure—big-chested, white-haired, and powerful.
The young go-getter was noticed. In 1935, after the success of Odets’s Awake and Sing!, V.J. Jerome, the Party’s cultural commissar (and a fixture in memoirs of the period), called the Thunderbolt to the Twelfth Street headquarters and urged him to convey the Party’s wishes to the cell—that it try to take over the entire Group Theater. Kazan carried the message back but voted against the takeover. He was then browbeaten and humiliated before the cell by an organizer from Detroit brought in for the occasion—Lefty had arrived after all. Outraged, Kazan broke ranks and quit the Party. He now presents the episode as a violation of the highest principle: “The Man from Detroit had been sent to stop the most dangerous thing the Party had to cope with: people thinking for themselves.”
According to Kazan’s supply-side economy of the self, anything that adds to ego capital is useful: he defends the narcissism of actors on the ground that the self-approval derived from winning an audience’s love can help liberate an actor’s true self. His stage roles certainly did so for him, and now he began acting in life as aggressively as he had on stage. He started to direct plays, moving swiftly into prominence in the commercial theater, his early career culminating, in 1942, in the first production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.
A Life is a handbook of harsh but not cynical worldly advice, a shrewd primer in the skills of manipulating actors, producers, and agents (though not writers, whom Kazan generally reveres). For Kazan, these transactions are justified by an artist’s need to gain the power to do what he wants. Directing the child actress Peggy Ann Garner in his first film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), he was faced with the problem of getting a true emotion from Garner in the scene in which she must weep for her alcoholic father, who has died:
[Garner] told me that she often dreamed of her father, who was overseas in the air force. When the day came in our schedule when she had to break down and cry, I talked to her about her father. Implicit in what I said was the suggestion that her father might not come back. (He did.)
Kazan got what he was looking for—and justice requires saying that the performance is extremely moving.
Later on, as an apostle of the Method, he would become friendly with actors, listening to their problems, trying to get hold of some psychological trait that could be mined for the performance. Mastery of the actor must be achieved one way or the other. During the rehearsals for the Wilder play, still a young man, he took control of the foultempered Tallulah Bankhead, who had repeatedly tried to get him fired, by screaming at her in front of the cast. He then won a stunning victory. Entering his hotel room one night during the road tryouts, she dropped her clothes, advanced to his bed,
but stopped cold when she saw there was someone in it with me—also a member of the cast, but from a more modest salary level. Tallulah looked at me with a terrible fury, growled like an animal, pulled on her clothes, and left.
His pleasure in telling the story is obvious. But is he telling all? Did he anticipate Bankhead’s offer and provide himself with a girl? In any case, after reading anecdotes like this, one begins to question Kazan’s portrait of himself as a frightened outsider in America. He appears to have been able to look out for himself at any time in his life. But still:
I trust authority—to be unfriendly. I feel I will be apprehended as much for my thoughts as for past deeds and omissions. I’ve done nothing for which I might be arrested, but that doesn’t seem to make any difference.
Even today, when I’m modestly affluent and recognized as a man of some achievement, I will be driving along or walking the streets or sitting at dinner, and suddenly I’ll find myself in the grip of a fantasy in which I am defending myself—actually speaking the words, trying to wash myself of guilt. The police have me! I protest my innocence…. It seems I am constantly defending myself against an accusation of one kind or another.
One can’t help noticing, however, that Kazan’s neuroses, instead of blocking him, impel him upward. In A Life, the frequent passages of inward struggle are meant to enlist us in his drive to jettison the compliant side of his nature: Lord, let me be selfish so I can fulfill myself as an artist! But by the early Forties, far from having an artist’s mission, he had established himself as a Broadway stage director with a pragmatic sense of what “works”; he was hardly a theater visionary like Meyerhold or Artaud.
Clifford Odets, Kazan’s friend and colleague in the Group, had such a mission and was ruined. In love with the theater but eager to make money, Odets dragged himself unhappily through long years in Hollywood, often working on screenplays never filmed or on anonymous rewrites of other men’s work (at the end of his life, he was writing a television series for the actor Richard Boone). The journal he kept in 1940, now published by Grove Press as The Time Is Ripe, suggests how much the movies attracted and shamed him. In the course of the year (he is thirty-three at the beginning of it) the Group, beginning to lose its way, failed with its New York production of his play Night Music. Odets then traveled to Los Angeles to write a screen adaptation of the play (never made). He was earning $2500 a week. He was restless, with little to do but work, drink, and sleep with the actress Fay Wray, and he quickly came back.
The year was a turning point for him. No longer the famous young playwright whose picture had been on the cover of Time two years before, he had begun his excruciating career as a famous American has-been.
The Time Is Ripe is an emotional record of Broadway, 1940, as a vale of soul-making. Fascinated by Casanova and Stendhal and Byron, Odets made breathless notation of his erotic triumphs, mixing rhapsodic ardor with homely notes of the bachelor life:
Home I came to write on the trio play. And yet this goddam acute loneliness makes me leave the telephone on, hoping that by accident someone may call. And then the phone rang!… She came here in record time, whereupon we fell upon each other and slept and awoke and chatted and massacred each other again and again and then she fell asleep and I prowled around the house, unable to sleep until past ten in the morning, she stained and scented beside me with all the exercises of the night.
There are many girls, some famous, some not; much restless driving around the city late at night; and, on every page, amid the lyricism, descriptions of his friends and himself almost painful in their harshness. Idealistic, impassioned, and fatally lacking in canniness, even routine common sense, Odets demonstrates in this journal the intoxicating sweetness and seriousness of his famous conversation (by reputation, he was one of the best talkers of his time). He was a prodigious autodidact, and he had caught art fever that year, reading Stendhal, Gide, Heine, and Strindberg, gearing himself up with long stretches of Beethoven on the record player—more than one beautiful young woman was forced to listen to the late piano sonatas before climbing into bed.
The journal details plans for projected plays about Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Woodrow Wilson, and reveals why he had so much trouble completing anything. Piety and frivolity were so ruinously mixed in Odets’s nature that he could not begin to write without episodes of exaltation (Beethoven and more Beethoven) yet could not work seriously without stopping to run out and meet, say, Leonard Lyons or Walter Winchell at a nightclub. Returning home from the Stork Club at dawn, exhausted and guilty, he would write for an hour or so before falling asleep. Inspiration, raised in Odets’s journal to a fetish, required the constant celebration of scribes and photographers.
He knew he was turning himself into a fool. “This living from the jowls and testicles is murderous for me. It engulfs me, a man with an essentially religious purpose and use in life, a sort of sunken cathedral of a person.” The actor Lionel Stander said to him in a club one night: “You are a first-class man. What are you doing with these nitwits?” On the other hand, Odets got something useful out of the nitwits—the dialogue he added, years later, to Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), an acrid portrait of columnists and press agents prowling the corrupt New York night world. But his own play about his Hollywood experience, The Big Knife, was overblown and self-pitying. Like many other serious writers, he thought the movies were childish but had great difficulty mastering the peculiar skill of screenwriting. At one of Dorothy Parker’s cocktail parties, he sees the moldering figure of F. Scott Fitzgerald—“pale, unhealthy, as if the tension of life had been wrenched out of him.” It is a meeting sad to imagine—one writer drawing near the end of his Hollywood martyrdom, the other beginning his long descent.
The masochism and willful self-delusion in these old stories of unfulfilled promise and California disaster make Kazan’s burly pragmatism seem almost tonic. True, he probably cared less about the integrity of his work than Odets. In the studio days, the men and women who managed to survive were often devious, self-protecting, resourceful in defeat. At Twentieth Century-Fox, where Kazan made his first films, every person of talent had to live under the dictatorship of Darryl F. Zanuck, whose control extended even to the costuming of minor players. A polo-playing gentile in the land of the Jews, Zanuck prided himself on his boldness. In practice this meant that before and during the war Zanuck inserted an occasional film about a social issue (The Grapes of Wrath, The Ox-Bow Incident) into the mix of “family” entertainments starring Shirley Temple, Sonja Henie, and Betty Grable. After the war, following the box-office success of Goldwyn’s The Best Years of Our Lives, Zanuck encouraged Kazan to direct “liberal” pictures, and Kazan, eager to get on, took the scripts that were handed to him, and had a crack at poverty, anti-Semitism, and racism. In A Life, he dismisses his early “progressive” work as simple-minded and obvious, but he brought an unusual intensity to his direction of actors—James Dunn as the agonized drunken Irish father in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, John Garfield ruffling the smooth surface of Gentleman’s Agreement—that impressed James Agee and others.
Few people now have a good word to say for the Method—so inadequate for any classical play, so irrelevant to modernist work. But in the late Forties and Fifties, the Method’s system of pulling large, ambivalent emotions out of the actor’s past experience was perfectly suited to the psychological themes—even the psychological clichés—of the new Miller, Williams, and William Inge dramas, whose characters were often dominated by buried secrets, illusions, and lies. Kazan was by training so much a Method man that he couldn’t do his best work unless a play or playwright set off some emotional association in his memory. Willy Loman may have reminded many people of their own fathers (hence the generalizing weakness of Death of a Salesman), but the character, however hollowly symbolic, still had some specific private meaning for Kazan.
Williams, in Streetcar, was using much more idiosyncratic material than Miller, but Kazan decided that Williams was an outsider like himself, a fellow conspirator against bourgeois life, a restless prowler in sexual tenderloins. The character of Blanche Du Bois, Kazan thought, was Williams, and like Williams, who lived with an occasionally violent man and sometimes picked up rough trade, Blanche was attracted to a similarly violent force, Stanley Kowalski. Since everything, according to the Method, must proceed out of experience, Kazan, hoping to come closer to comprehending Williams’s homosexuality, tells us he once had sex with a girl in Williams’s apartment while the playwright in an adjoining bed had sex with a man.
Kazan gives no suggestion in his book that he had any particular ideas about theater. He was chiefly interested in the practicalities of casting and movement, in staging conflict and emotion. He directed Streetcar as a struggle to the death between Blanche and Stanley, and his heated production became a scandalous hit. It was only later, in the film version and on the page, that the play’s literary quality became clear. Kazan infused his productions with the agitation of his resentful temper; onstage, he intended to intensify a play’s erotic conflicts and psychological violence, bullying scenes to a climax, moving the line of emotion from a quiet low point to a frantic high. “We used to say in the theater: ‘What are you on stage for?’ ” Kazan told the French critic Michel Ciment. ” ‘What do you walk on stage to get? What do you want?’… The asset of that is that all my actors come on strong, they’re all alive, they’re all dynamic—no matter how quiet. The danger of the thing may be a frenzied feeling to my work, which is unrelieved and monotonous.”2 He created a theater of sensation—more orgasmic than cathartic—that embarrassed those not immediately moved by it. Mary McCarthy, who admired neither Miller nor (alas!) Williams, decided that Kazan’s work was merely violent and corny. There was too much broken furniture, too many weeping men, and Kazan himself was too much a “whipcracking ring-master.”
But Kazan’s movie version of Streetcar, released in 1951, has many scenes of extraordinary delicacy in which Kazan lets the actors work quietly through lingering shots. Vivien Leigh especially, exploring the corners and shadows of Blanche’s remarkable speeches, gives a sustained and beautiful performance. Throughout the rehearsals and tryouts for the stage production, Kazan had worried that Brando’s Stanley was overwhelming the Blanche of Jessica Tandy. But in the movie, without reducing Brando’s force in any way, Vivien Leigh’s Blanche is allowed to dominate—and the poetry of the play comes through. In A Life, Kazan repeatedly deplores his own vacillating and compromising temperament, but perhaps this weakness added peculiar strengths to his skills as a director. Kazan could be sympathetic to both Stanley Kowalski’s brute appetite and Blanche Du Bois’s self-delusions perhaps because he saw both in his own character. A man of more coherent temper might not have understood the play so well. In his direction of Brando and Leigh, Kazan demonstrated at least the sensibility, if not the substance, of an artist.
He was on top of the world, a director highly successful and admired on both coasts (one of the few times this has happened). Still, he feared some impending disaster, the “Turk waiting in a shadow, with an unsheathed scimitar.” But self-created myths don’t necessarily tell you how to behave when disaster comes. Kazan’s account of his lurching, inconsistent behavior in the McCarthy period is indelibly foolish, for he asks our approval of the good intentions he failed to honor as well as for the terrible things he actually did. At the beginning of the McCarthy period he had resolved not to give in to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. “I would not, under any pressure, name others. That would be shameful; it wasn’t an alternative worth considering.” In a preliminary executive session with the Committee, on January 14, 1952, he held to his resolution, admitting his Party membership but refusing to name others.
At a second session, however, on April 10—a session that he sought himself—he named the eight other members in the cell within the Group as well as a variety of other Communists he had known in such organizations as the League of Workers Theaters (later the New Theater League) and the Theater of Action. The sad pages of his testimony are a hapless, eager spilling of information, some of it asked for, some not. Kazan named front groups whose petitions he had not signed; he asserted “I did not support Henry Wallace for President,” and so on. He appended to his testimony a bizarre catalogue raisonné of his work, describing how each play or movie was either anti-Communist in tendency or “not political.”
From April 1952 on, in Victor Navasky’s phrase,3 “Kazan emerged in the folklore of the left as the quintessential informer.” What happened between the two appearances? For thirty-five years he has deflected interviewer’s inquiries, promising to explain all in his own good time. But in A Life, though he labors heavily to re-create the events, his account is disjointed and unconvincing. Suddenly the man of candor evades and withholds.
He cites veiled threats to his career from Zanuck and Spyros P. Skouras but doesn’t explain his behavior in the way that the book up to that point sets us up to expect—as the failure of nerve of an abnormally fearful child of immigrants. He now insists that he acted on principle, striking at a dangerous institution that also bullied writers and artists—he cites the humbling, in 1946, of Albert Maltz and the case of his friend Budd Schulberg, who had been severely reprimanded by the Party in 1940 for not making What Makes Sammy Run? a proletarian novel. And Kazan was still angry about his humiliation in 1935 by the man from Detroit. Then, too, the Party thrived on silence and the squeamishness of liberals, who feared being accused of red-baiting. And so on. Underneath all this one can hear Kazan’s outraged howl of disbelief: Why me? After all, he had never been a committed Communist like Maltz or John Howard Lawson. He had joined as a career move. Were they now going to ruin him for it?
Kazan must have known at the time that what he was about to do was ugly, because he sought approval and forgiveness—or was it condemnation?—in advance. In scenes now famous, he absurdly tried to justify himself, a confused and masochistic suppliant, first to Arthur Miller in the Connecticut woods and then to Lillian Hellman in the Oak Room of the Plaza. Both have since expressed astonishment at his confused behavior. For he could have refused to testify and denounced the Party in speeches, articles, a book. There is no doubt that an uncooperative Kazan would have had a bad time of it in Los Angeles, but not in the New York theater, where his Communist past would have carried no stigma. And in Europe he would have been received as a hero. Despite everything he now says, there remains as large a gap as ever, in logic and in ethics, between assailing the Communist party as an institution and fingering eight old friends (as well as others), men and women who, with the exception of Paula Strasberg and Odets, possessed nothing like his fame or power.
More than once in A Life, he admits that naming names is a repulsive act (while defending it at the same time). But he doesn’t re-create the eagerness of his prostration before the Committee; nor does he reprint the notorious ad he took out in The New York Times which attacked the Communist threat and defended his testimony, the text of which he says his first wife—dead since 1963—wrote for him.
After this shameful time in 1952, the jack-in-the-box sprang the lid again, and made a fast recovery that discomfited liberal moralists and others who prefer that personal fortune conform to virtue. Kazan now had real enemies, but this proved an invigorating experience that gave him—for the first time in his life, he insists—a strong sense of his identity. “I would be what I had to be—tougher than my enemies—and work harder.” And he makes the defiant boast: “The only genuinely good and original films I’ve made, I made after my testimony.”
This is true, and the second half of his book can be read as an elaborate defense of the act that Kazan is convinced transformed him into an artist. Without altering one’s judgment of what he did in 1952, one has to admit that his life grows in moral interest as he begins, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, to convert his embattled new sense of himself into the material of his movies.
The irony is that one of his best movies, On the Waterfront (1954), reveals that he hadn’t shaken the bad old Thirties. Remnants of the cloying, over-explicit tone of the left-wing theater haunt the shots of oppressed longshoremen, heads drawn together, like some choral grouping of players under a spotlight stage right; one hears that tone again in the hectoring speeches that Budd Schulberg wrote for Karl Malden’s tough waterfront priest (a stand-in for the Thirties’ tough labor leader).
But nothing from the American movies of the Thirties prepares one for the harsh, open-air look of the film, set in Hoboken, its sooty tenements taunted by the grandeur of Manhattan’s towers. Boris Kaufman’s cinematography makes the physical discomfort, the scrambling for work in bitter cold, palpable in almost every shot. Even the union thugs have to huddle together in their little waterfront clubhouse for warmth. There is nothing of the Thirties in the mixed shame and insolence of Brando’s performance or in the beautiful and graceful sequence in which a guilty Brando hesitantly pursues a reluctant and suspicious Eva Marie Saint across the park in front of the church.
The romance between the guilt-stricken waterfront lout and the trusting convent girl is often mawkish, but in this scene the mingled abrasions of raw air and smoke support an almost painful sense of life unfolding at great risk. In a continuous shot, Brando picks up the glove that Saint nervously drops and then, as she pauses, he sits on a swing and teases her, absent-mindedly drawing the glove onto his hand; when she reaches for it, momentarily refusing the intimacy, he gives it up and they both move on without any break in the stumbling conversation. Kazan says that the business of the dropped glove just happened, but the stop-and-go camera movements that convey the new, tentative friendship must have been worked out in advance. The scene is affecting in ways that film theory and even film criticism cannot account for.
The delicacy is there again in the powerful sequence set in a saloon, in which Brando, a compromised prizefighter who has become the pet of a crooked union, exposes to his girl a self-disgust so pervasive that it sickens—Kazan had got himself on screen at last. Kazan imposed on Brando’s Terry Malloy both his sense of unworthiness and, later in the movie, as Terry testifies before the Waterfront Crime Commission, his pleasure in destroying those who had dominated him. When Terry shouts, “I’m glad what I done!” he speaks for the Kazan who had taken a pasting in the liberal press.
Many commentators have said that Waterfront, a movie created by two informers (Schulberg had also cooperated with the Committee), offers a rationale in convoluted “moral” terms for ratting on one’s friends, and of course this is true. But for Kazan more than self-justification may have been at stake. In the Fifties, many of his most successful colleagues were losing their morale or going under. Perhaps he feared that without asserting himself in some violent way he might have faded, too, as Odets and Williams, William Inge, Nicholas Ray, and Lee J. Cobb, each for his own reasons, did. Kazan, however, grew stronger. He was much in demand in the theater. Williams wanted him to direct all his plays, but Kazan found himself increasingly impatient with other men’s work. The movies he made during this period appear to have as their subject different versions of himself—some ugly, some comical.
He is there in James Dean’s resentful, unloved son in the biblical-Freudian East of Eden (1955), battling against the father who thinks he’s worthless. Kazan’s slyness, covetousness, and carnal resourcefulness show up in Baby Doll (1956), the erotic comedy that Tennessee Williams concocted for him out of two short plays, in which Eli Wallach, a cunning Sicilian in Mississippi, seduces the infantile but beautiful young wife of his business rival. Baby Doll, which caused a sensation at the time and was then mostly forgotten, is one of Kazan’s films most worthy of revival.4 Williams’s story has the structural elements of classical farce (virginal young wife, foolish middle-aged husband), but Kazan got the actors to play the characters as grotesques. It’s his only comedy, and he made it funny at maximum risk: instead of supporting Williams’s Southern-gothic poetry with hanging moss, languor, and heat, he shot the picture in the Mississippi winter, in hard sunlight and on nearly empty sets. The light is so strong that the movie seems to be staring at its audience.
Again, a mocking and undermining sense of himself comes through in A Face in the Crowd (1957), in which a back-country TV demagogue, rapidly rising to the top, experiences at the very peak of his success the unshakable sensation that he is a louse. Convinced that art and self-revelation were the same, Kazan eventually gave up on collaborators, telling the story of his family and himself in such memoirs and novels as America America, The Arrangement, The Anatolian. This elderly self-absorption was perhaps the result of a lifetime’s devotion to the Method—he has wound up talking only about himself. Still, Kazan’s earlier films are among the more interesting American movies of the Fifties—coarse but emotionally powerful. Kazan never became a moviemaker who expressed himself easily with the camera. Nevertheless, I emphasize his moments of delicacy because some of the best critics have never noticed them. Dwight Macdonald repeatedly called Kazan a vulgarian; Manny Farber saw nothing in his work but pretentious New York Freudianism and “hard-sell.”
In France, Kazan as a director is revered as a master—even an obvious failure like Wild River (1960) is admired. To us, now, he seems an awkwardly powerful figure, a man both trapped by and expressive of the earnest, psychologically tormented side of the postwar years. His characters (sons, brothers, revolutionaries, betrayers) violently break through repressed feelings, sometimes literally ripping the doors from their hinges. Overwrought and often humorless, Kazan can also be courageous in ways threatening to the current taste for emotionally unengaged movies. Amid the dozens of teen movies of the last decade, none takes the miseries of adolescence with half the seriousness of Splendor in the Grass, a sustained piece of emotional filmmaking shot in velvety dark colors.
For all his Hollywood success, Kazan never quite became part of pop culture—his movies are too morose for that. But, like Robert Rossen, he flourished in the curious mannerist period between the easygoing, studio-produced genre films of the Thirties and Forties and the movie age of shopping-mall pop, both infantile and grandiose, that we live in now. Enraged, and flailing about, he often made people feel more than they wanted to at the movies.
September 29, 1988