Odd Man In

A Life

by Elia Kazan
Knopf, 848 pp., $24.95

The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets

with an introduction by William Gibson
Grove Press, 369 pp., $22.50

Elia Kazan
Elia Kazan; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.