Kazan on Directing
By Elia Kazan
Knopf, 341 pp., $30
When he sat down to write his autobiography, Elia Kazan hit on a brilliant tactic to solve the problem of the multitudes who loathed him for naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.
He freely and continually proclaimed that he was guilty of extreme bad faith: By his own account, he was selfish, arrogant, self-absorbed, a compulsive adulterer, a ferocious climber. Cumulatively, he had one of the worst cases of short man’s disease on record.
Guilty about informing? Not really.
Kazan’s authentic candor—something unusual for show business autobiographies—disarmed all but a few hard-core Stalinists who wanted him to crawl. Ultimately, of course, Kazan knew that character failings don’t make much difference when it comes to art; if the work lasts, the reputation will, too. If the work doesn’t last, who cares if you made generous donations to worthy causes and stood by your friends in the time of the toad instead of shoveling dirt in their faces? Like the man said, “‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of abandoned relatives.”
Kazan on Directing is drawn from his letters, journals and autobiography, and it also includes “The Pleasures of Directing,” a book he began in old age, modeled after Maugham’s wonderful The Summing Up but never completed.
It’s a miscellany that is unusually entertaining despite its scattershot nature, partially because it has a continuing theme: relentless and unyielding self-examination. Kazan was an obsessive nudge, always circling and wondering how the work could have been better, even after it was done. “The only way to understand any character is through yourself,” he writes at one point. “Everyone is much more alike than they willingly admit. Even as frantic and fantastic a creature as Blanche [DuBois] is, she is made up of things you have felt and known, if you’ll dig for them and are honest about what you see.”
In retrospect, he thought the (perfect) ending of East of Eden was too conciliatory. “[Y]ou let Dean off easy,” he grumbles to himself. Actually, his dislike of the picture’s ending probably relates to his breaking one of his own cardinal rules: “If you find you don’t like [actors] as people, don’t employ them.” As was clear from his autobiography, he neither liked nor respected James Dean.
And sometimes he writes things you’d love to follow up on: He refers to one dead friend as “half artist, half homosexual.”
DOES THE book confirm his greatness with actors? Oh, yeah.
In a memo to the cast of Death of a Salesman, he tells Cameron Mitchell that he’s trying too hard to be grief-stricken at Willy Loman’s funeral. “A good rule for actors: DON’T SHOW MORE THAN YOU’VE GOT. It will be false.” (It’s a good general rule for writers as well.)
In another entry, he tells himself, “Don’t cast for the negative quality that an actor needs at the beginning of a part, but for the positive quality that the actor needs at the end.”
It’s not just his insights, it’s the incisive way he expresses them.
This is probably why Kazan wasn’t really a good screenwriter or novelist—he was more attuned to the actor’s process than the writer’s, and in dramatic terms he always saw the endgame, which gave him a tendency to lunge at climaxes. He trusted the actor, but I’m not sure he trusted the audience. He was unquestionably superb at plumbing the depths of a superior writer’s dramatic core (Tennessee Williams, William Inge, John Steinbeck), but incapable of creating that core himself, which only made him redouble his efforts as a director.
Throughout the book, whether as a young man or an old one, his honesty is most focused when directed at himself. In “The Pleasures of Directing,” he talks about his loss of energy, the ebbing of empathy and passion that came upon him with age. “Sex has become sympathetic companionship, not desire. I don’t really need fucking anymore.”
Somerset Maugham never offered that up!
Editor Robert Cornfield is every bit as opinionated as Kazan, but his opinions don’t carry the same credibility. He slags Wild River, praises America America and draws a discreet veil over Kazan’s later output, even though The Last Tycoon contains one of Robert De Niro’s quietest, least characteristic performances.
Kazan’s energies may have lagged, but not his great gifts.
Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.