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
DIG, FARMER, DIG
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.)
Schickel is clearly more at ease discussing movies than plays, going through them one by one, plots and all, the text leavened with revealing remarks from Kazan’s notebooks and punctuated by amusing stories, although Kazan’s own versions are almost inevitably more vivid than Schickel’s. One example. Schickel’s Kazan on Katharine Hepburn in Sea of Grass: “Everytime she went to the bathroom to take a piss in that picture, she came out with a different dress.” Kazan’s Kazan: “It looks to me that every time she goes in to take a piss, she’ll come bouncing out of the can in a snazzy new outfit!”
The movie Schickel focuses on most closely is On the Waterfront, with which Kazan was so powerfully and personally engaged. He provides us with a highly detailed and interesting account of the long struggle to get the film made, involving an early approach to the story by Arthur Miller called The Hook, Kazan’s eventual collaboration with Budd Schulberg, and the last-minute rescue of the project by the independent producer Sam Spiegel after all the big studios, obsessed with large-screen extravaganzas, had rejected it. Schickel is acute and sensitive on Brando—on the strain of tenderness that informs the movie and differentiates Brando’s Terry from his Stanley Kowolski. (In his notes, Kazan—without denying that Waterfront partially reflects his and Schulberg’s politics—stresses that “this motion picture is about one thing only: a young man who has let his dignity slip away, regains it.”) And it’s fun to to be reminded of Brando’s inflexible rule about abandoning the set (in Hoboken) late in the afternoon in order to get to his psychiatrist (in Manhattan) on time, or to learn that
there exists an early poster for the film, on which this line, the desperate concoction of an anonymous ad man, trying to warm the public to a harsh subject, appears: “A story as warm and moving as Going My Way…but with brass knuckles!”
In sum, despite his efforts at interpreting the film itself, Schickel’s approach is for the most part anecdotal—and the anecdotes are too often warmed-over. To get the flavor of what it was really like making Waterfront you have to go back to A Life:
God, it was cold that night, and the snow didn’t help, and the crew was awfully tired after a long, tough schedule.
That was the night our producer decided to come out about one in the morning and give the crew a boost—not by praising them but by scolding and threatening them. It was freezing cold, and the snow was half sleet but thickening, and the tarpaulin over the alley was filling up with the stuff and threatening to collapse. The crew had just put the canvas cover up and one of their number had fallen off a ladder and broken his leg and been driven to the hospital. The crew had taken a break, ducking out of the arctic wind into a little factory off the alley to get warm again. And up comes Sam [Spiegel], fresh from the Stork Club, and he had on his camel’s-hair coat and those one-hundred-and-twenty-five-dollar alligator shoes—so Charlie Maguire [Kazan’s first assistant] remembers it—and everybody was getting ready to go outside again and finish the job, when Sam orders Charlie to get the crew together, and as soon as they were there, staring at him resentfully—again according to Charlie, because I wasn’t allowed in—Sam launches into his speech of complaint and outrage. “You’re killing me,” he said, “you’re absolutely killing me with your incompetence and your laziness.” Mind you, they’d been out all night in ten degrees of temperature (no one measured wind chill in those days), and they’d had enough. But Sam didn’t sense it. “Apologize later” was his motto.
There was a little prop man on that crew, Eddie Barr was his name, and he’s been around working props for a million years, and he stood up and he said, “You Jew cocksucker!” Barr was a Jewish guy, and he could get away with that. “You Jew cocksucker, if it weren’t for Charlie Maguire and that little guy outside”—me—“we’d all be home. Nobody wants to be out here tonight. This is blood money tonight. We don’t need this kind of money. Now you better get your ass out of here if you want us to make this picture.” So Sam left; you couldn’t blame him for that, only for not having the humanity to thank the men for the work they were doing on that very hard night. The only discomfort Sam could ever appreciate was that of the wealthy and of the established snobs whose friendship he valued.
Kazan’s writing is always so alive—and his take on his work always so stimulating—that reading him makes reading Schickel even more of a chore than it already is. You can agree with Schickel’s judgments—he appreciates the early A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the underrated Baby Doll; admires the autobiographical America America while registering its faults; demonstrates Kazan’s ruthless encouragement of the conflict between James Dean and Raymond Massey during the filming of East of Eden; and sees a great deal in A Face in the Crowd (perhaps more than others see)—but reading him on these movies, and the others, is more like taking a basic course (Kazan 101) than encountering any compelling vision of them.
How, for instance, did Kazan’s talent for creating heightened emotion on the stage, together with his talent for liberating actors from staginess, carry over to his movies? Was his impulse to make such films as Panic in the Streets and Boomerang on location and with non-stars a deliberate attempt to create a new film style or a reflection of his powerful impulse to be on his own, far from the constrictions of the System? Can we say that his movies add up to a consistent if uneven body of work, like those, for instance, of John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, and King Vidor (or for that matter, Renoir, Ozu, and Murnau)? If so, what is their common denominator?
David Thomson, in fewer than three columns in his Biographical Dictionary of Film (another book with which I’ve been associated), provides fresher insights into Kazan’s directorial career than are to be found in Schickel’s hundreds of pages. One quick moment in Thomson: “Splendor in the Grass…is intense to the point of hysteria, the most extreme instance of Kazan’s emotional involvement with his characters, the source of all that is vital and most alarming in his work.” Arguable, perhaps, but certainly something to think about.
And, finally, Schickel doesn’t address the likelihood that if Kazan had never made his movies, we would be missing a number of superior individual works but the history of Hollywood would remain relatively unaffected, whereas if he hadn’t invented the Actors Studio and revolutionized stage direction by keeping his plays so emotionally true while making them appear larger than life, the American theater and American acting would have been radically different. Although the films remain on hand to be studied and enjoyed and the stage work has disappeared, it was in the latter that Kazan made his most lasting mark.
For all the work Schickel has put into anatomizing Kazan’s career, he seems to me more deeply invested in parsing and justifying Kazan’s political history. As time passes, certain complicated lives become reduced to a single pivotal event that defines the way the world considers them. Bruno Bettelheim is a case in point—remembered first and foremost by many today as the psychiatrist who hit children under his care. In the same reductive spirit, as Schickel points out, Kazan has become first and foremost the man who named names to HUAC—as if his identifying Communists he had known in the Thirties was the only defining act of his life. Yet Schickel (who insists, “This book is a critical biography”—it’s his opening line) lends credence to this view by starting off with an account of the dismaying controversy that surrounded the honorary Oscar presented to Kazan at the 1999 Academy Awards. (He had already won two Oscars back in his directing days, for Gentleman’s Agreement and On the Waterfront.) A number of people indulging in overheated rhetoric tried to shame Academy members into remaining seated and silent during the award presentation, but their attempts fizzled, partly in response to Warren Beatty’s defense of the man who had given him his first break, in Splendor in the Grass.
Schickel is cutting about those who attacked Kazan inaccurately or unfairly during the Oscar incident. Rod Steiger—referring to Waterfront—was quoted by Time magazine as saying,
If a person’s a good director, he’s almost the father of a family and must know how to handle his children…. He was my father and he double-crossed my family [by naming names to HUAC]. We were shattered. One person died of a heart attack. There were suicides. Time does not forgive a crime. The crime still exists. There is no forgiveness. He was our father and he fucked us.
But as Schickel reminds us,
The person who died of a heart attack, J. Edward Bromberg, was named by Kazan, but posthumously. The suicide, Philip Loeb, was not mentioned by Kazan… [and] if Steiger and the rest of the cast had been “fucked” by Kazan, the deed had occurred almost a year and a half before they went to work on the picture—plenty of time to make a principled decision not to do so if one so chose.
He goes on to cite “victims” who claimed they had been named by Kazan but hadn’t been—“it seemed that it was not enough to have been called a Communist by some virtually anonymous informant. If you were going to be named, it was apparently better to have been named by the most famous of the friendly witnesses.”
Perhaps Schickel’s emphasis on the Oscar storm stems from the role he himself played in it, having volunteered to produce the film tribute that preceded the award presentation. Whatever his reasons, the book he’s given us is essentially a defense plea. He acknowledges, “To testify as Kazan was obliged to do in 1952 is not a pleasant matter; it sticks in one’s craw.” But was Kazan obliged to testify? And doesn’t that use of the impersonal “one’s” suggest that he can’t bring himself to say “my”? His defense of Kazan faithfully reflects the position Kazan took in A Life. By 1952, he tells us, he hated communism: he was, he insists, an émigré who owed everything to America, and he believed that the Communists were seeking to destroy it. Certainly he felt he owed nothing to unrepentant Stalinists. Yet when he addresses the issue it’s with his usual streak of self-inquisition:
I always saw two sides to every issue and every judgment. And so, in the body of my conviction, there appeared the worm of doubt. I still believed that what I’d done was correct, but no matter that my reasons had been sincerely founded and carefully thought out, there was something indecent—that’s how I felt it, as shame—in what I’d done and something murky in my motivations. What I’d done was correct, but was it right? What self-concerns were hidden in the fine talk, how powerful a role had my love of film-making, which I’d been discounting, played in what I’d done?
You may feel that all this is merely self-serving, that the committee was illegitimately forcing people to name names that were already known to the government and that presented no threat, and that Kazan deserves all the opprobrium he reaped; my point is that his defense of himself is considerably more nuanced than Schickel’s defense of him.
At the time of the hearings, Kazan made his situation worse than it already was by running a defiant ad in The New York Times explaining his decision to testify. (Actually, “A Statement” was written by his wife, Molly, who was, as Schickel says, “more fiercely ideological—and intellectual—than her husband was.”) I think Schickel is right in suggesting that to a large extent it was this misconceived, provocative ad accusing the Group Theatre of “dictatorship and thought control” that turned Kazan into the “celebrity informer”: it was one thing to do something morally repugnant; it was another to defend it. (Others who did the deed kept their mouths shut and quietly lived down the blot on their reputations.)
But pugnacity and defiance were deep strains in Kazan’s nature, carefully hidden by him since childhood under what he calls his “Anatolian smile.” When people attacked him, he might have had self-doubts but he would spit in their faces. As he wrote,
When Brando, at the end [of On the Waterfront], yells at Lee Cobb, the mob boss, “I’m glad what I done—you hear me?—glad what I done!” that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had…. Every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go and fuck themselves.
His consistent and aggressive refusal to recant surely is the main reason why Kazan, alone of all those who named names, has gone on being excoriated. By 1999, the year of the honorary Oscar and almost half a century after Kazan’s “treachery,” the ad was ancient, mostly forgotten history. Yet the eighty-nine-year-old Kazan, whose mind was slipping, remained a target, not only to those few of his “victims” who were still alive but to those for whom attacking him had become a defining—and comforting—gesture.
Schickel’s greatest scorn in regard to this ugly, complicated history is reserved for Arthur Miller, who evokes his most loaded language. But then he isn’t very generous to others close to Kazan. He’s openly antagonistic to Lee Strasberg, faintly patronizing to Thornton Wilder and Clifford Odets. He appears to have no more than an ambivalent tolerance for Harold Clurman, to whom Kazan was strongly attached. He seems to judge Brando primarily by his behavior toward Kazan—and toward himself. (At first, Brando refused to grant Schickel permission to include film clips from his performances at the Oscar retrospective.) There’s room for only one hero in Schickel’s book, even if he’s a flawed one. And, indeed, the book’s most attractive element is the author’s wholehearted embrace of his hero’s qualities.
Yet Kazan is a larger figure than the man Schickel gives us. What he leaves out is what to me is the essential Kazan—his lifelong, unremitting attempt to eradicate his early feelings of ethnic, intellectual, and sexual inadequacy; and, equally important, his obsessive need to take charge of his life by defying outside authority of any kind. At the bottom of everything was his life-and-death struggle with his powerful, controlling father, whom he feared. Then he had to shed his mentors, Clurman and Strasberg, and go on to wrest for himself unique power as a Broadway director. (In his book he tells us that as early as 1946, with All My Sons, “it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to collaborate with anyone.”) He was determined to escape from the constrictions that the Hollywood studios, even the benign ones, imposed on him, more or less becoming his own producer, until eventually he felt impelled to escape from the limits even independent filmmaking imposed on him. He did this by becoming a writer, at first with great success—The Arrangement, a raw, autobiographical account of a man struggling to redeem his life, was the best-selling novel of 1967. As a writer he could feel, at last, that he was in complete charge of himself.
But even this was not enough. He was still driven to transcend the person who—through luck, persistence, talent, and dissimulation—had escaped the constricted world of his unmoored émigré family and forced his way into the mainstream of American cultural life and on to unimaginable reward. “I wasn’t the man I wanted to be,” he says on page five of A Life; instead, in order to get ahead he had turned himself into the fellow nicknamed “Gadget”—the charmer, the manipulator, the wielder of the self-protecting Anatolian smile that hid the rage and resentment that motored him. The lesson he had yet to learn was, “You have a right to anger. You don’t have to earn it. Take it. Anger saves.” His face as an old man, he tells us proudly, finally revealed the anger that had always been hidden behind that smile—but the anger itself was gone. I believe that for Kazan, achieving this—even more than his successes on Broadway and Hollywood—was his greatest triumph. As for judging him today: other men have had a tragic flaw or have committed a despicable act; not many of them have led lives as full, as productive, and as bewildering in their contradictions as Kazan’s. He was both a force of nature and a canny operator, which may explain why so many people even today can neither get around him nor get to the heart of him.
April 6, 2006