In 1999, four years before his death at age ninety-four, a shaky-looking Elia Kazan appeared on prime-time television to receive an honorary Oscar. To many watching at home, Kazan’s brief turn was an obligatory detour on the way to what proved that year’s main event, the upset victory of Shakespeare in Love over Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as Best Picture. Most American moviegoers don’t know most film directors’ names, and Kazan had not made a film in more than twenty years.
Even so, the moment caused more of a stir than was usual for such pro forma industry rites. When Kazan came on stage after an introduction by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (who had starred in Kazan’s final film, The Last Tycoon, in 1976), the reaction shots of the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion exposed the public to the half-century-old cold war conflict that the impending award had reawakened in Hollywood. Many down front rose for a standing ovation, including Warren Beatty, whose stardom was catalyzed by Kazan (in the 1961 Splendor in the Grass) and whose film Reds had appeared in 1981. But others, most conspicuously the acting nominees Ed Harris and Nick Nolte, stayed seated and glowered in protest over Kazan’s notorious naming of names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. Still others straddled a middle path, among them Spielberg, who applauded Kazan but remained in his seat.
Scorsese was and is Kazan’s most prominent and fervent champion. As a prime mover in the campaign to get him an honorary Oscar, he no doubt thought he was giving Kazan the credit due him. But Kazan had already won two statuettes as Best Director, for Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and On the Waterfront (1954), so he didn’t need a consolation prize that had been given late in life to those like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Robert Altman who were snubbed by the Academy in their artistic prime. The unintended consequence of this bonus Oscar was to shine a klieg light on Kazan’s HUAC testimony—elevating it once more to the top of his public profile, getting it more publicity at that moment than any of his films.
A decade later Scorsese would mount another Kazan tribute, a highly personal American Masters documentary for PBS titled A Letter to Elia. It makes the case for Kazan as “one of the most important figures in the history of movies,” both as a peerless director of actors and as a visionary American exponent of postwar Italian neorealism, by focusing on three films that were formative for Scorsese as a young moviegoer: On the Waterfront, East of Eden (1955), and America America (1963), Kazan’s autobiographical independent film inspired by his Anatolian Greek family’s passage from Turkey to America. (Kazan was born in Constantinople in 1909 and arrived in America four years later.) Scorsese does not gloss over the nasty business of the McCarthy era; nor does he dwell on it. Yet a stark, efficient summation of Kazan’s testimony is all that is needed to upstage the rest. The real-life drama of that episode is at least as powerful as the classic Marlon Brando–Rod Steiger clip Scorsese included from Waterfront, the movie in which Kazan and the screenwriter Budd Schulberg, another friendly HUAC witness, implicitly defended their testimony.
As Scorsese observes in his narration of A Letter to Elia, Kazan’s naming of eight fellow Communists from his Group Theater cohort in the 1930s might have faded fast had he not taken out an ad (ghosted by his then wife, Molly Day Thacher) in The New York Times trying to justify his decision. Pugnacious by nature and eager to advertise his iconoclasm in almost every realm of his personal and professional life, Kazan sometimes seemed to revel in being a pariah. Off and on, he continued to publicly revisit the McCarthy era for the rest of his life. Even as he ducked some journalistic inquiries, including those from the Nation publisher Victor Navasky for his book on the Hollywood blacklist, Naming Names (1973), he ruminated about his testimony in extensive interviews he gave to a worshipful American filmmaker, Jeff Young. In Kazan’s compulsively readable autobiography, A Life (1988), he finally told the whole story as he saw it.
“What I’d done was correct, but was it right?” he wrote then. “Here I am, thirty-five years later, still worrying over it.” He never resolved the moral questions as unambiguously as both his detractors and supporters have. Kazan constantly vacillated between expressing nagging doubts and defending his testimony as the essential and patriotic unmasking of “a thoroughly organized, worldwide conspiracy.” Speaking with Jeff Young in 1973 and 1974 (the interviews remained unpublished for twenty-five years), he said that “anybody who informs on other people is doing something disturbing and even disgusting. It doesn’t sit well on anybody’s conscience.” He expressed “some regrets about the human cost of it,” as well—“one of the guys I told on I really liked a lot”—and allowed that “maybe I did wrong, probably did.”
But he also told Young that “in some ways the experience made a man out of me because it changed me from being a guy who was everybody’s darling and always living therefore for people’s approval, to a fellow who could stand on his own.”1 In A Life, he extended that point, asserting that “the only genuinely good and original films I’ve made, I made after my testimony”—films, as he defined them, that “were personal” and “came out of me.” (So much for the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, released in 1951.) He was, rather miraculously, spared the suffering of his friend Clifford Odets, who, Kazan wrote, “gave away his identity” as a “hero-rebel” by naming names and fell into terminal decline.
My one substantive encounter with Kazan was an afternoon-long interview I conducted in the mid-1980s at his Connecticut house for a book about the theatrical designer Boris Aronson, a Group Theater colleague. Aronson had not been involved in the blacklist wars, and the subject was not among my queries. Kazan went there anyway, volunteering that Aronson had approved of his decision to break with the Party in 1936 after roughly eighteen months as a member. That approval was hardly a revelation given that Aronson had left Soviet Russia for good in 1922 rather than sacrifice his artistic freedom to any party line.
But then Kazan went further, implying to me that Aronson had also approved of his HUAC testimony. Aronson’s widow Lisa told me afterward that this was not the case. Indeed, when Arthur Miller, who would later refuse to name names, split with Kazan—breaching a profitable theatrical partnership that had spawned the original Broadway productions of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman—Aronson enlisted as the set designer on Miller’s 1953 witch-hunt drama, The Crucible, which was seen as an implicit rebuke to Kazan’s testimony. (In fact Miller makes it clear in his memoir that he had planned to write The Crucible well before Kazan told him he would testify.)
Kazan was so forthright a talker that his one anomalous stab at dissembling seemed unconvincing even as he said it. Disingenuousness was not part of his repertoire, and neither, for the most part, was political self-righteousness. (He probably would have loathed Lillian Hellman even if they had been in the same camp during the blacklist.) The candid Kazan voice is at full throttle in The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan, yet another supersized serving of self-revelation from the director who may have left a longer published autobiographical paper trail than any major peer in the history of American film or theater. Between this fat new anthology, the eight-hundred-pages-plus A Life, the book-length transcripts of his interviews with both Young and the admiring French critic Michel Ciment, and Kazan on Directing, a 2009 compilation drawn in part from his notebooks and an unfinished manuscript, you can wallow in Kazan for weeks, often with pleasure, without ever watching any of his films.
The letters, authoritatively edited and annotated by Albert J. Devlin and Marlene J. Devlin, begin in 1925 with the teenage Kazan, a directionless New Rochelle high school student and rebellious son of a tyrannical rug merchant, anticipating his enrollment at Williams College. They end in the late 1980s, with the publication of A Life. As the Devlins write, the letters (nearly three hundred, drawn from a pool of some 1,200) only rarely contradict the full-dress account provided by the autobiography. The two books would be profitably read in tandem, for the letters add more detail and shading to the propulsive narrative of A Life.
As the Devlins observe, another distinguishing feature of the letters is that “one looks in vain” to find “extended discussion of art, literature, politics, history, or religion.” Kazan’s only real subject is himself—his quest to be “A SINCERE, CONSCIOUS, PRACTISING ARTIST,” his relentless appetites (especially for travel and sex), his love for his wives and children (even as he subjects his family to serial infidelities), his intense feelings toward nearly every figure in his professional life, and his will to get what he wants out of his many collaborators. With the exception of Death of a Salesman, which yielded a relatively modest amount of correspondence, there are blow-by-blow accounts of Kazan’s creative path on most of his major film and stage projects—Streetcar, Waterfront, Eden, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Face in the Crowd, Sweet Bird of Youth, Baby Doll, America America.
No less fascinating are the exchanges about some of his more instructive failures, notably the plays Camino Real (a Tennessee Williams flop of 1953) and Miller’s After the Fall of 1964, which was to be a production of a new national theater at Lincoln Center. For this play, Miller decided, after much reflecting, to work again with Kazan. As Miller wrote in his memoir:
What it came down to now was whether his political stance and even moral defection, if one liked, should permanently bar him from working in the theatre, especially this particular kind of publicly supported theatre. As for morals, perhaps it was just as well not to cast too wide a net; for one thing, how many who knew by now that they had been supporting a paranoid and murderous Stalinist regime had really confronted their abetting of it?
If I still felt a certain distaste for Kazan’s renouncing his past under duress, I was not at all sure that he should be excluded from a position for which he was superbly qualified by his talent and his invaluable experience with the Group. Nor could I be sure that I was not merely rationalizing my belief that he was the best director for this complex play; but to reject him, I thought, was to reject the hope for a national theatre in this time.
So After the Fall appeared during the inaugural season of what would prove to be Kazan’s abortive effort to help create a Lincoln Center repertory company.
You can’t read Kazan in any form without coming away with a satisfying answer to a question that baffles so many outside of his profession. What does a director do? Kazan’s leading questions and passionate entreaties to Schulberg, John Steinbeck, William Inge, Archibald MacLeish (J.B.), and (most profusely) Williams show how scripts are made and remade from draft to draft until they come to a full boil (or do not). Kazan is similarly painstaking in addressing set and costume designers (Aronson, Jo Mielziner, Lucinda Ballard) and the cinematographer Boris Kaufman. As he prepares After the Fall, he is simultaneously instructing Mielziner, who was designing the abstract unit set for Miller’s play, and Eero Saarinen, who was conceiving the Vivian Beaumont Theater for the still-in-embryo Lincoln Square cultural campus. In all these instances, Kazan is dealing with big egos or sensitive souls or both, yet he always seems to stay on the right side of the boundary that delineates forceful intervention and guidance from dictatorial edict.
The angriest he ever gets with Williams is over a preface to the published edition of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which included an alternative third act to the Broadway version and left some critics convinced that the director had forced revisions on the playwright against his will. The evidence in the letters suggests that Kazan was right to be aggrieved; he hadn’t forced anything on Williams.
Kazan’s legendary work with actors is inevitably far less visible in this book, since it happened in real time in rehearsal or on the set, not in correspondence. Still, his appraisals of stars, present or future, are shrewd in a manner that suggests he wasn’t the son of a rug dealer for nothing. In a letter to Schulberg about the possibility that he might cast Paul Newman as Terry Malloy in Waterfront “if we dont get Brando,” Kazan writes:
This boy will definitely be a film star. I have absolutely no doubt. He’s just as good looking as Brando, and his masculinity which is strong is also more actual. He’s not as good an actor as Brando yet, and probably will never be. But he’s a darn good actor with plenty of power, plenty of insides, plenty of sex.
And to Steinbeck about casting James Dean in East of Eden:
I looked thru a lot of kids before settling on this Jimmy Dean. He hasn’t Brando’s stature, but he’s a good deal younger and is very interesting, has balls and eccentricity and a “real problem” somewhere in his guts, I don’t know what or where. He’s a little bit of a bum, but he’s a real good actor and I think he’s the best of a poor field. Most kids who become actors at nineteen or twenty or twenty-one are very callow and strictly from N.Y. Professional school. Dean has got a real mean streak and a real sweet streak.
As a revelation of Kazan’s own guts, however, the most pertinent aspect of his directorial modus operandi may be his dealings with studio chiefs. Kazan’s rage at his capitalist overlords is as pronounced as the “STRIKE, STRIKE, STRIKE!!!” he exclaimed from the stage as a young actor in the original 1935 Group production of Odets’s Waiting for Lefty.
In 1939, at the dawn of his film career (then as an actor), Kazan had written Molly Thacher, his wife since 1932, “I will never in the future, as long as I don’t need money, work in Hollywood.” That was a pledge he would often violate, and once he had, he quickly realized that if he was in for a penny, he was in for a pound of the studio’s flesh however he could wheedle it. Kazan fought hard for every scrap of publicity and advertising he could get; he tried to micromanage first-run New York theater bookings, and endeavored to manipulate the moguls as adroitly as he did his actors. “I’m known as the Greek Barnum and I care like a son of bitch,” he wrote to Jack Warner, arguing successfully for a suggestive block-long billboard over Broadway to promote Baby Doll.
Flattery was a significant part of his repertoire. “One of the very, very nice things people say about you is that when the occasion arises, you are the greatest fighter in this business,” he wrote to Warner in one of several pleading letters attempting to save Streetcar from the censor’s scissors in 1950. (Kazan’s projects habitually crossed the Catholic Legion of Decency and Hollywood’s Production Code; Turkish censors came down on him, too, when he shot America America on location.)
His sycophancy toward the bosses would inevitably give way to franker assessments behind their backs. “Warner Brothers,” Kazan wrote to the Streetcar composer Alex North, “should be allowed to swim in their own shit and choke to death in it.” Darryl Zanuck at Fox was “not what you call a bighearted man,” he wrote Thacher while shooting Man on a Tightrope in August 1952. “He’s mostly sheer competition in a size 30 waist band.” But by September, when it suited his bargaining purposes, he wrote his lawyer Bill Fitelson and his agent Abe Lastfogel at the William Morris Agency, “I am very fond of Darryl.”
In the Selected Letters, there are just three pieces of correspondence from the crucial span at the start of that year—from January 14, 1952, when Kazan appeared before an executive committee of HUAC, admitted his Party membership, and refused to name others, and April 10, when he reappeared voluntarily and reversed himself. Each letter was to shore up his anti-Communist profile. The first, to Zanuck, was a political defense of the soon-to-be-released Viva Zapata!, with Brando starring as the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata: “This picture is not only pro-democratic, but it is specifically, strongly and uncontrovertibly anti-Communist.” The second, also to Zanuck, was a fawning pitch for “a very funny moving picture” to be written by John Steinbeck in which counterfeit money “dropped in great quantities from the air” behind the Iron Curtain would destabilize the Communists. (Zanuck, though politically sympathetic, had the sense to veto it as “a ‘one joke’ idea.”) The third Kazan letter was another defense of Zapata written to the editor of Saturday Review to coincide with his second appearance before HUAC.
When he recounted this period and his decision to name names in A Life, Kazan remained furious at those who had circulated the canard that he knuckled under as a quid pro quo for an imminent six-figure Hollywood contract. However, in his autobiography he also raised another, related question: “What self-concerns were hidden in the fine talk, how powerful a role had my love of filmmaking, which I’d been discounting, played in what I’d done?” This seems a feint; it’s not clear from his pre-1952 correspondence that he was fully drawn to filmmaking yet. For much of his Hollywood career until then, he had been turning out fairly conventional studio films (however well done or high-minded) like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gentleman’s Agreement, and Pinky.
By contrast, some of his parallel theater credits in the 1940s, from The Skin of Our Teeth to Streetcar and Salesman, were cultural landmarks. Since there was no blacklist on Broadway he could have kept working there as much as he wanted on his own artistic and financial terms even if he had refused to testify. Unlike Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, his mentors in reinventing American acting through the Method, he had managed to transmute an idiosyncratic theatrical revolution into a commercial and critical triumph.
Whatever Kazan’s motives for his capitulation to the committee, it’s hard to believe his claim that doing so was the turning point that made him “a fellow who could stand on his own.” He always had been that fellow. Some of the more striking early entries in the Selected Letters are those in which he writes Thacher about his extramarital promiscuity with a fearless, if not cruel, candor and specificity that would continue through his subsequent marriage to the actress and filmmaker Barbara Loden. At every step of his directorial apprenticeship he chafed against authority—Williams College, the Yale School of Drama, the Group. He continued to do so after he achieved success, whether challenging his peers at the Actors Studio or the civic patrons of Lincoln Center.
He loved being a rebel. When his run of box-office luck ran out in Hollywood, he found a way to make movies outside the studio system, at one point trying to set up The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the collaboration of Alex Haley and James Baldwin. When his career as a novelist—he wrote seven—was greeted by critical scorn (if, at first, robust sales), he made what he called his “own place outside our literary society.” It’s no wonder Kazan eventually came to despise his long-lived, Group-spawned nickname “Gadg”—for Gadget, “handy, useful, and able to cope with any minor emergency”—because it “suggests ever-ready compliance.” It was only briefly, as a member of the Party and as a friendly witness to HUAC, after all, that he bent to peer pressure, conformed, and allowed himself to be used.
Writing about Lillian Hellman’s self-canonizing McCarthy-era memoir, Scoundrel Time, in 1976, Murray Kempton, recalling that Hellman took the Fifth Amendment, suggested that “there will be a time to come when all that will be remembered about you is whether or not you gave the names.”2 In the case of Kazan, that’s not so. But what will he be remembered for? In A Letter to Elia, Scorsese mentions Kazan’s theater career only in passing, as a professional gateway into film. Robert Gottlieb, who edited A Life, reverses that emphasis, suggesting 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.3
That seems about right. But you could also argue that Kazan’s most lasting mark will be the torrents of prose with which he tried to justify, or at least explain, his own performance in Washington and the rest of his long and restless twentieth-century life.