One day while still a young actor, Elia Kazan was standing on a street corner with his good friend, Martin Ritt, another young actor. Across the street were two pretty young women. Ritt suggested that he and Kazan go over and talk to them. “No point,” Kazan said. “They wouldn’t want anything to do with two funny-looking Jews.”
Ritt was Jewish; Kazan was not. He was Greek, the original family name Kazanjioglou. But the identification with a persecuted race is revealing: Kazan always felt one down, never fully accepted by a society whose values he otherwise scorned. His response was defiance. Even at the height of his fame, when he was the hottest director in America, twice winner of Academy Awards, Broadway director of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, the chip was firmly on his shoulder. He had an immigrant’s creed: Get ahead, but also get even. Mostly, the anger was concealed behind what Richard Schickel in his affectionate biography calls Kazan’s “Anatolian smile.” What people saw was energy, talent and charm. The anger rarely surfaced. When it did, it came too often as betrayal.
He arrived in America with his family at the age of 4. His father went into the carpet business and was prosperous enough before the Depression hit to send Elia to Williams College, an elite institution, where he was generally miserable. It was an early experience of being an outsider; as Mr. Schickel puts it, “swarthy, runty, big-nosed … nursing a new set of resentments.” From Williams, he drifted to the Yale Drama School, mainly to be with a college friend, Alan Baxter. He didn’t much like Yale either, finding its classes shallow and dull, but he liked Baxter’s girlfriend. Her name was Molly Day Thatcher, and she came with an impeccable WASP pedigree; her grandfather had even been president of Yale. She was the opposite of Kazan in every way and therefore utterly desirable. They became lovers, “the amiable Baxter more or less graciously backing away.” Mr. Schickel may be giving the driven Kazan a pass on this one: It’s possible to question each one of those quoted words except “Baxter.”
Kazan left Yale wanting to be a movie director, influenced by the great Russian directors of the 20’s and 30’s, but ended up in New York with the fledgling Group Theatre. Mr. Schickel is right in saying that “you cannot understand Kazan’s life without understanding ‘the dream of passion’ that was the Group.” Radical, communal, leftist, wildly if unevenly talented, it was dedicated to revolutionizing the American theater, releasing it from its bondage of commercialism. It never succeeded, but it hatched a new style of acting and at least one considerable playwright, Clifford Odets, whose talent was matched only by his self-destructiveness. At first, Kazan functioned as a kind of handyman, repairing props, a fixer of inanimate objects. It led to a name he disliked, but that stuck with him for the rest of his life: Gadget or Gadge.
But he began acting with the group, and here Mr. Schickel—because he apparently never saw Kazan act except in a few small movie parts—doesn’t give him enough credit. I was lucky to have seen him onstage, first as an enthusiastic barker for a Coney Island game called “Fascination!” in Irwin Shaw’s The Gentle People; then creepy and scary as a gangster in the Odets play Golden Boy; and again for Odets in Night Music, as a baffled young man trying to deliver a monkey to someone forgettable. He had no great range, but he was mesmerizing: You did not take your eyes off him. He told me once, long after he had quit acting (disclosure: I was writing a play for him at the time), that he would have liked to have played Richard III. He knew what he had.
At this point, he did two things that would henceforth shape his life: join the Communist Party and start directing. The first didn’t last too long. He resented the party’s rigid attempt to tell him what to do and was losing faith in the party as a force for good; he quit after a few years. But, according to Mr. Schickel, “he never abandoned his working-class sympathies or his belief in the need for some sort of revolutionary reform in America.”
Kazan always considered himself some sort of socialist. His heart was with the poor and the dispossessed; his head was a mixture of idealism and ambition. He wanted to get ahead, and he did. He formed the Actors Studio together with Martin Ritt in order to tap the pool of young talent coming out of the war. But he dumped Ritt when Cheryl Crawford and Bobby Lewis from the Group Theatre came on board and decided that Ritt wasn’t prestigious enough.
He directed hits on Broadway, starting with Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth and moving on to Salesman and Streetcar. He went to Hollywood and directed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), then won his first Academy Award with Gentleman’s Agreement (1947).
His directing was like his acting, full of energy and force. Actors loved him; he brought out the best in them. One way was by seduction. With men, it was in intimate chats; he understood and knew you without judgment. He cared, and the caring was (or anyway seemed) real. With women, the seduction was usually in bed. No one complained. I remember him as the most seductive man I ever met and liked him enormously. He told me once that 98 percent of a performance was in the casting, and he had a special gift for finding an actor of no particular distinction or even ability and placing him in that one role where he could be brilliantly effective. Burl Ives in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a prime example: All he could play was Big Daddy, and he did it again and again in various films and various costumes.
Mr. Schickel is good on the directing, on Kazan’s rise, his friendship with Arthur Miller, his relationship with Marlon Brando. Brando saw his directors as father figures whom he was committed to destroy. Kazan was the exception. Each did his best work with the other, first in Streetcar and then On the Waterfront (1954). Miller fell out with Kazan after the latter’s testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities but later asked him to direct his play, After The Fall. But something was missing by then, either in the play or the direction, and it was not a success.
Kazan’s wife Molly died in 1963, and he married again—an actress named Barbara Loden, who played the female lead in the Miller play. But she too died of cancer, after a two-year fight. Much later, he married Frances Rudge, an attractive Englishwoman who entranced him on their first meeting by saying that she’d never heard of him; he was still happily married to her at his death.
When Kazan made movies—Viva Zapata! (1952), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Wild River (1960), America America (1963)—he went after social subjects; it was always the side of the street he wanted to work. The films vary in quality, ranging from the power of On the Waterfront to the dutiful Man on a Tightrope (1953), done after his HUAC testimony to demonstrate the sincerity of his anti-Communism. (There was always an additional price to pay.) Eventually, his energy flagged: The last film was a listless adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (1976) with a miscast Robert De Niro.
His first novel, The Arrangement (1967), with strong autobiographical elements, became a best-seller. Two years later, he made it into a poor movie that he later regretted. After that came a few mediocre novels, and then he wrote his autobiography, A Life (1988). It’s unfair to Richard Schickel that he comes after this. It’s a hard act to follow: brilliant, shameless, scathing about himself, fascinating about directing, a fuck-you to the world. Along with the best of his films, it stands as his monument. He died in September of 2003, aged 94.
Mr. Schickel calls his book a “critical biography.” He tells the story well and chattily, never reluctant to give his own opinions, whether artistic or political. His bias is clear: He’s a liberal anti-Communist who cares about his subject, and though he’s aware of Kazan’s flaws, he’s generally willing to give him the benefit of doubt. The betrayal of his first wife is glossed over; the serial philandering seems due mainly to sexual exuberance and a taste for blondes. The sharing of Marilyn Monroe between Kazan and Arthur Miller is seen as pretty much normal activity among men and starlets in those days, not as exploitation. Kazan’s HUAC testimony, when he gave the names of people with whom he’d been in the Communist Party, is judged responsible and blameless.
When it comes to politics, Mr. Schickel’s book is less of a biography and more of a lawyer’s brief. He starts with a 19-page prologue dealing with the 1999 Lifetime Achievement Award given to Kazan by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—as though that distinction defined Kazan’s life. There were protests and pickets around the theater the night the award was presented. Many in the audience refused to stand at the presentation. There was a feeling—which I shared—that part of Kazan’s “lifetime achievement” was his collaboration with HUAC, a committee of bigots, racists and anti-Semites whose function was always the stifling of dissent. Kazan named people he knew were innocent of any crime. And he gave his own name. The committee wasn’t really interested in the other names—they already had them all. They wanted Kazan’s name, wanted to show that this important man was with them, agreed with them, was on their side. He gave them his name, and that’s why there was the protest. He hurt other artists, but he also soiled himself, and the stain remained.
According to Mr. Schickel, the protest was mounted by the “aged remnants of Stalinism, by their younger allies from the New Left and by good-hearted, liberal-minded show folks who had no understanding of the left-sectarian battles that had long ago shaped the politics of their trade.” But naming names was a moral issue more than a political one, and those past left-sectarian battles had nothing to do with what was going on.
Mr. Schickel is obsessed with Communists. For him, the Cold War is still with us. Though he’s normally a tolerant man, the gloves are off when it comes to the Reds. John Howard Lawson, one of the Hollywood 10 who went to jail, “snivels … grovels before the Party hierarchy … writes dreadful screenplays.” Mr. Schickel suspects without proof that Jules Dassin, the blacklisted director living in Greece, probably sabotaged Kazan’s plans to shoot a movie there. He often sounds as though attacking Kazan is defending Stalin. He loves Kazan—it’s one of the attractive qualities of his book—but his ardor too frequently turns his biography into a rescue operation.
Elia Kazan has no need to be rescued. He was what he was: a complex man with an impressive body of work who once publicly did something he shouldn’t have done. Worse crimes have been committed. He didn’t kill children or torture anyone. All he did was rat out a few people he disliked anyway. Perhaps part of the reason he did what he did was because he wanted so desperately to be an American. In that, he succeeded more than he knew and established himself in a long line of achieving Americans: charming, talented, intelligent, seductive and prone to betrayal.
Walter Bernstein, a screenwriter, is the author of Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist (Da Capo).