Elia Kazan: A Biography

Richard Schickel,
Elia Kazan: A Biography.
HarperCollins, 2005.
ISBN: 0 06 019579 7
US$29.95 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by HarperCollins)

What most distinguishes Elia Kazan from other directors occupying a major place in the American movie pantheon is that, at his peak, he was innovative and highly successful in both theater and film simultaneously. In his heyday, he produced Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, among others, on Broadway, and he directed not only the film version of the latter, but also Viva Zapata (USA, 1952), Panic in the Streets(USA, 1950) East of Eden (USA, 1955) and of course On the Waterfront (USA, 1954). He is most known, however, for that last film and especially the ancillary issue surrounding it: his testimony before Congress in which he not merely acknowledged his earlier membership in the Communist Party but named others who had been members. For this he could never be forgiven by several of those named and many sympathetic to them or their leftism. When the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced it would award him an honorary Oscar at the 1999 ceremony, there were vehement protests urging the Academy to reconsider. At the ceremony, many in the audience refused to applaud the 89-year-old director.

Although Richard Schickel uses the award and its reception as the hook for his biography – he takes Kazan’s side, although with various nods towards the sensibilities of those who detest snitches – his book provides at least some substantive discussion of every theatrical production Kazan directed, every film, and even Kazan’s several novels, written as his film career was in decline. Readers are likely to find Schickel’s accounts of the play productions the most useful. The movies, except for the minor ones, are available, as are the novels, for us to scrutinize. The theatrical productions are not. Everyone has heard of Clifford Odets, but a lot of us who have tried to read plays like Waiting for Lefty or Awake and Sing! are left baffled by the acclaim he once enjoyed and the reverence with which, until lately, his name evoked. Schickel brings alive those productions through interviews, Kazan’s diaries, his friendship with Kazan, and fairly extensive research into contemporary reviews. He enables us to understand the excitement with which the Group Theatre staged those 1930s productions and the enthusiasm with which they were received. If to us they seem like crude agitprop, to the Group and their admirers they were revolutionary. Members of the Group Theatre were living the Marxist intellectual’s dream: they were changing the world, getting rave reviews, and bedding just about anyone who struck their fancy.

The book abounds with insights into Kazan’s directorial style and his attitude toward the craft. For him direction was not a matter of coaching actors but rather of turning psychological, interior phenomena into external behavior. He liked to allow actors an opportunity to invent, and he worked with them extensively in rehearsals, helping them help him flesh out the characters and the action. Schickel points out that Kazan’s successes in both stage and screen were built around a great performance, and where such a performance was lacking, his productions usually failed. He had no use for storyboards but preferred to arrive on the set with an open mind about how to film the day’s scheduled scenes.

Schickel includes ample material on Kazan’s relationships with his wife, the many women who were not his wife, and his colleagues, but for the most part the stories he tells are unaffecting. But his accounts, however brief, of the film projects Kazan engaged in on the downside of his career are affecting. With surprising good cheer, Kazan worked as a production assistant on his lover Barbara Loden’s $200,000 16mm movie Wanda, and he directed his son’s script under conditions typically endured by first-time directors. But only on his last Hollywood film, The Last Tycoon (USA, 1976) when he was reduced to making shot lists for the producer’s approval, did his enthusiasm openly flag.

A useful and very readable book, Elia Kazan has at least two serious flaws. One is that Schickel does not always seem to have read the books he lists in his bibliography. He offers untempered praise for On the Waterfront’s music track, apparently unaware that in Joanna E. Rapf’s On the Waterfront (Cambridge University, 2003), both Kazan and the conductor himself, Leonard Bernstein, were quite explicit in pronouncing it an overbearing failure, an opinion shared by many. A perusal of William Baer’s chronologically arranged Elia Kazan Interviews (University of Mississippi, 2000; reviewed here in issue #13) reveals a fascinating 30-year process by which Kazan, after first denying any personal connection to the character of Terry Malloy, gradually came not just to admit but to proclaim that he identified with Terry’s denunciation of Johnny Friendly. The struggle Kazan must have engaged in before coming to that point would have been a fascinating and rather expected topic for a biography to explore.

This oversight is suggestive of another, more serious flaw in the book. Schickel seems oddly unengaged in his subject. This is reflected in the book’s lack of either a dramatic arc or an organizing theme. The closest Schickel comes to a unifying concept are frequent mentions of Kazan’s feeling of being an outsider, his immigrant-family roots, his energy, and his Anatolian smile. He seems not to notice an intriguing key to Kazan’s character that is right under his nose, put there himself. Of an early stage production, Schickel quotes Kazan admitting that he was afraid of the main actor, who, “like any beast, could smell my fear,” and going on to call directing “a complete trial of a man’s character” (70). His difficulties with Tallulah Bankhead on the stage production The Skin of our Teeth was “the one fight every director has,” the one that “makes or breaks him” (103). Kazan said that his testimony before Congress, and his vilification for having done so, “made a man out of me” (273). Unhappy with a day’s work on A Face in the Crowd (USA, 1957) Kazan, at age 46 already established and famous, wrote in his diary, “Grow up and become a man!!” (343). But Schickel, who doesn’t fail to point out whenever he can that Kazan’s lovers were almost always blondes, makes nothing of Kazan’s lifelong preoccupation with manly courage. What an astonishing oversight in a biography by someone close to his subject. Like the purloined letter, this likely key to just about everything in Kazan’s career, to his testimony, On the Waterfront, his willingness to take risks, sits there in plain sight, ignored.

D.B. Jones
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Thursday, 2 March 2006 | Last Updated: 2-Mar-06