Edited by Albert J. Devlin, with Marlene J. Devlin
As another morally shaky director noted, the heart wants what the heart wants, and Elia Kazan wanted to keep making films. At the time of his testimony in 1952 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he had already directed, among many other works, the original Broadway productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, and had won the Oscar for directing Gentleman’s Agreement. At the top of his field and wanting to stay there, he provided the Committee with the names of eight former colleagues from his brief tenure as a Communist Party member. He defiantly noted that he’d only provided names already known to the Committee and had done so as a patriotic act. His outraged critics noted that this act of patriotism was instigated by a subpoena, and reeked of self-preservation. Regardless, Kazan went on to reach unprecedented heights in both theater and film. He won another Oscar for On the Waterfront and for years was the go-to director for America’s greatest dramatists, including Tennessee Williams, Willian Inge, and, after a decade-long post-HUAC rift, Arthur Miller. But the indignity would remain as spectacular as his successes; many never forgave him for testifying, many never forgave him and worked with him anyway, and there are few artists who have inspired such admiration and revulsion in almost equal measures.
It’s a story that’s been told many times before, perhaps most comprehensively by Kazan himself, in two book-length interviews with Michel Ciment and Jeff Young, and in his autobiography, A Life, not only one of the most literate testaments to a life in the arts, but one so frank and comprehensive (if inevitably skewed), that subsequent biographies feel like little more than addendums. So too with The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan, a scattershot compilation of missives (or, as Kazan was wont to misspell them, missiles) written over sixty years, starting in 1925 with him as a schoolboy and ending in 1988 as a grandfather, many addressed to the most prominent American artists of the twentieth century, few of them telling us much we didn’t already know. If anything, the letters reinforce what the aforementioned books already made clear – that even from a very young age, Kazan was a bullet of determination, had unflappable belief in the inevitability of his talent catching up to his ambition, and suffered the occasional, rarefied ennui of someone who knows he can conquer any world he sets his sights on.
He was born Elia Kazanjioglou on September 7, 1909 in Istanbul to Greek parents. His father George built a successful rug business, and the family eventually wound up in New Rochelle. George practiced a sort of old-world familial tyranny and was a lifelong source of fear and guilt for Elia, who denied his father’s wish for him to join the family business, and, with his mother’s encouragement, instead went to Williams College on scholarship. There, this short, big-nosed child of immigrants envied his snow-white classmates and their WASP girlfriends (of all major directors, only Hitchcock would show more of a blonde fixation). He wound up at Yale Drama School, where he met Molly Thacher, who would become the great stabilizing factor in his life. They would have four children and remain married for thirty years. She was a dramatist, had an eye for talent (she essentially discovered Tennessee Williams when he won a playwriting contest she organized for the Group Theatre), and a fluctuating tolerance for her husband’s philandering, which started prior to their marriage and continued unabated until her death.
It was in more communal settings that Kazan started to find his niche. Back in New York he sought membership in The Group Theatre, the fabled collective formed in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg. The three were idealists and theoreticians smitten with Constantin Stanislavsky’s work with the Moscow Art Theatre and subsequently inspired to create an American theater of substance, one that treated actors as more than movable props in service to commercial entertainment, and addressed social themes relevant to post-Depression America. It was here that Strasberg developed the much-maligned, much-misunderstood Method, which codified Stanislavsky’s teachings. Strasberg’s adaptation emphasized physical training combined with mental exercises meant to connect actor to character via relaxation, sense memories, and affective memories drawn from personal experience. It was a revolutionary approach, and almost every heralded performance in the decades that followed, from the disciplined astonishments of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire to the overwrought indulgences of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, find their roots in some variation of Strasberg’s system.
The Group provided a deep foundation, but after witnessing the stasis that often resulted from actors frozen in emotional recall under the almost cult-like sway of Strasberg’s personality, Kazan developed a style predicated on helping actors attain their foremost need: to convey character dimension and vitality directly to an audience. Early in his career, he addressed a letter to the cast of Quiet City, gently admonishing them for performing too “dutifully”, and explaining his take on the Method and the point of its usage:
The method to me is not a way of acting but a way of rehearsal-in other words you can act a certain way only if scenes are rehearsed a certain way. But the core of the meaning of the method to the actor to me is not talking, or listening-both of which are essential-not the theory of action as the essence of acting-which many good actors realize instinctively and perform instinctively, not the acquaintance with spine and long distance mood-the really central and fundamental thing about the method for the actor, especially as I’ve experienced it in my work on stage is that the “METHOD” relates the role to the actor’s own personality-it really tries to make the performance spring from something which is genuinely present and creatively operative in the personality of the actor himself. Then its really like Life. Then our stage is quick with a kind of life that we see no where else-quick of the sense of souls alive at that moment-rather than with stage business, manoeuvres and stage managers conveniences.
To me that’s the central thing that was missing Sunday. It is this incandescence from within.
As he continued to develop his craft, Kazan joined another revolutionary group keen on communal experience, the Communist Party, and through various left-wing theater groups that flourished in New York at the time, he began the triumphant career that would proceed largely unimpeded for the rest of his life.
One of the marvels in reading Kazan, or Kazan on Kazan, is in noting the relative lack of both internal and external obstacles that stood between him and his goals. There were father issues; resistance within the Group; as an actor, a lack of the indefinable quality that makes one a movie star; as a testifier, a modicum of hesitation. Then, continued ascendance. What the letters offer that the other books don’t are intimate, unguarded moments, many where the legendary composure collapses into emotional babble and self-censure, exposing stunningly deep fault lines beneath Kazan’s seeming solidity. Mostly, these are in early letters to Molly, where Kazan thrashes unintelligibly about the one enduring conflict of his life, his inability to reconcile his twin desires of a stable family life and the unrestricted freedom that he felt was crucial for artistic thriving. In other words, in the rare circumstance where he wanted more than he could have, he’d throw a fit. Following a separation prompted by his ongoing affair with the actress Constance Dowling, Kazan wrote a stupefying rant to Molly in 1942 that managed to encompass his lingering bitterness about the Group, his ambivalence towards his father, and Molly’s privileged background, to no apparent end:
I’m a shit. That’s right I went thru the shit. I did the dirty work of the Group. I built the scenery of Green Mansions. I was rejected (and correctly) for two years there. I became a stage manager. I didn’t want to be a stage manager. I kept fighting, even made an actor of myself. I’ve directed five failures in a row, still I keep coming. I’ll keep coming. I went to Hollywood, WHICH I HATED-I WENT AND CAME BACK. I tried to start a dollar top theatre. Nobody else-me. Not you, not Carnovsky, not Strasberg, not Odets, not Steele not Aronson. IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE-I TOOK THAT BEATING TOO. And you undercut that. Lewis this Lewis that. Sure you worked hard, you’re a fine girl and a good worker. But simple human, uncritical help-something else. I’m not blaming you, mind you-and I’m not reviling you. I love you. I think you wonderful. But I’m sick of not answering. My pride gags. I took it, the beating ups-you call it self pity, but I took the beatings up and I call it fact. What the hell did you ever do, coupon clipper?
You keep talking about the war in a holy despairing voice. Do something about it. No you want everything. Kids must have you. I want to believe everything is fine. I know everything isn’t fine. I love kids, my kids. I come from a family of kid lovers. I love my mother. I am crazy nuts, deliriously in love with my father. I’m in love with him. I feel sorry for him. Is that self pity? Analyze!
Perhaps taking this scoff seriously, Molly made sessions with an analyst, Dr. Bela Mittelmann, a condition of their marriage. Apparently the therapy didn’t take, and after Molly wrote of her plans to divorce, Kazan wrote:
I’m sick of the crap. I’m sick of the confusion. Lets stop it. You waiting there, me with my forehead wrinkling here. Three years now, that’s enough. I’m no clearer, Mittlemann made me no clearer about this. I’m not going to settle down and be somebody else because of a series of conversations with Mittlemann. All M. seemed to be trying to do was for Chrissake make me face what I am, bravely actually and simply and accept myself as Joe Schmuk, or Suskevich the great director, or Kazan the competent stage manager, or Eli the bowlegged ape, or gadget the wastrel, or Elia the student, or Eee his mother’s darling. BUT I’m sick of the crap. I’m sick of you waiting on what Mittlemann is going to do for me, and me waiting on what that jolly son of a bitch is or is not going to do with me. As long as I have money you can have it. You can have my farm, you can have the eyes out of my head but I’m going to be myself. Is that peculiar how I keep screaming that: I’m going to be myself. After all these years, I keep screaming I’m going to be myself.
Letters of this sort are few, and done with early in the book, but they’re startling pieces of delirium from an otherwise articulate man who, we know, would one day achieve an enviable self-acceptance. They’re also bracing starting points for the one great theme of Kazan’s life, that personal desires were an individual’s essential truths, and that one only becomes whole by committing to their pursuit. His letters reflect a life devoted to harnessing the full potentials of freedom and discipline in the name of desire, and how, along with his other considerable accomplishments, Kazan honed his powers of communication to get everything he wanted.
Molly was the only person who brought out such chaos, in writing, anyway, and apart from some griping with an ungrateful child many years later, Kazan’s battles were otherwise increasingly fought with sturdy prose and clarity of purpose. What he offered to, and demanded from, his collaborators was a different sort of fidelity: truth, and never more so than with Tennessee Williams. Excepting Molly, Kazan is never more tender, and deeply, meaningfully combative, than with Williams. They collaborated for thirteen years (A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Baby Doll, Sweet Bird of Youth), corresponded for thirty-three, and the letters, following a trajectory of unwavering support and commitment to a profoundly troubled friend, contain some of Kazan’s most profound thoughts on artistic process.
From 1949, following the failure of Summer and Smoke, as Williams tried to lose himself in travel:
It seems to me that the very things that make it uncomfortable for you here in the states are the things that make you write. I’ve seen it with a lot of writers (Cliff Odets for instance) that once they had dough and the power to live in a comfortable environment (as who doesn’t want to) the NECESSARY quality in the writing disappeared. It seems to me that the things that make a man want to write in the first place are those elements in his environment, personal or social, that outrage him hurt him, make him bleed. Any artist is a misfit. What the hell would he go to all the trouble-if he could make the ‘adjustment’ in a ‘normal’ way.
From 1952, regarding problems with Camino Real:
I’m only asking you to tell the story that is there, clearly and clearly as story. And I do have a dread of all those thousand-odd people leaving their seats for the intermission not knowing what the hell we brought them to the theatre for in the first place. To see that you’re talented or brilliant? To see that I have facility and violence? Christ, we’re supposed to be grown up.
From 1957, after the failure of Orpheus Descending:
I think you should have gotten more of a fight from somebody; a tougher, a keener, or possibly more unpleasant collaborator, telling you more objectively what was wrong with the script, where it was unclear, where it was too sudden, where it appeared unmotivated and abrupt. In fact, you needed someone to take the chance that I took in CAT. To take the chance that you would be resentful late and feel that you had been too strongly influenced.
From 1961, when Kazan was establishing the Repertory Theater at Lincoln Center, and Williams was bogged down in “fatigue and depression and disgust”:
Honestly, baby, isn’t it time. You’re fifty now. Most everyone experiments when they’re young, but the real good ones, Picasso, Michelangelo, Chaplin and Goya experiment when they have their full gift… I know for sure this whole Lincoln Centre Rep idea can die the Death! The death the other Repertory groups in this country died: asphyxiation in the dust of worthiness. I intend to be, if nothing else, bold and daring. We are going to do ‘classics’ but only when some made director has an idea that will make them contemporary. Since bob and I aren’t getting much money (so far, nothing-I’m living off ‘Waterfront’ and he off a certain Canadian Beer) no one scares us. So I’m asking you. You must have ideas that you hesitated about because they were too far outside of out. Or too ugly, or too hateful, or too dirty, or too painful, or too tragic, or too true. I want them. I’m in a crashing mood.
Baby, we’re going to do this thing even if you never give us a play. But I want you to, oh my, I want you to. That’s why the missile. I want you to give us a difficult one, an impossible one, a truthful one, a painful, honest, uncompromising one, all personal statement, all inconvenience, all untraditional, all uncommercial. We can put wonder back in the corpse of our Theatre.
There are similarly wonderful moments throughout, but one wishes that the letters had been grouped by subject; there really is no progression aside from an already confident, decisive talent becoming even more confident and decisive. The inevitable gaps in continuity resulting from the one-sided epistolary format, where letters are offered without introduction (followed by editorial annotation, many times with a brief clarifying quote from A Life) leave readers with only a vague idea of which people and events are being referenced. Much of this will generate more confusion than revelation; for instance, those unfamiliar with the Hays Code might wonder why it’s necessary for Kazan to assure Jack L. Warner and Finlay McDermott that “Baby Doll does grow up in the story, but I will make it clear that her growing up has nothing to do with her having had her first vaginal orgasm.” One also can’t help wondering about initial instigations or subsequent responses from correspondents – the Devlins offer some intriguing asides (such as Williams’s famous opinion of Kazan’s HUAC testimony, “I am not a political person and human venality is something I always expect and forgive”), but there’s so little in the way of context, and so many gaps in the chronology, that much revealed about Kazan feels like candy for the already converted.
But given the limitations, there’s much to savor as Kazan’s quirks, contradictions, and vulnerabilities emerge and recede. There are frustrations directed at targets predictable (Hollywood was “poison for an artist…like the grave, the tomb, the charnel pit…full of really very fine people, all in various stages of decomposition”) and not (60’s collegians, “a lot of girls with long hair and the idiotic folk-music-type get-up. There’s also a big, old fat-assed thing with a dulcimer on the lawn. And maybe ten percent of the boys had beards”). For all of his liberal pride, his dispatches from the world beyond show business often smack of the obtuse tourist. Writing to Molly in 1935 from Georgia, he notes, “There isn’t a white Southern girl who’s worth one of your discarded toe nails. This doesn’t go for the negroes—some of them are spirited & beautiful & unaffected (although damn if I can make out what the hell they’re talking about)”; and thirty years later, he wrote to his daughter from Thailand, “Those Buddhist monks who have been dousing themselves with gasoline and committing suicide in Vietnam are all over the place there too. And the temples are fantastic.”
As for HUAC, the letters serve as a colorful appendix to Kazan’s early insistence of his own righteousness, and the subsequent twinges of regret he expressed in A Life. He enumerates to Zanuck the blatantly anti-Communist elements in Viva Zapata! (“They are destructive of the very point of Communism”), offers an obsequious admission to HUAC (“The American people need the facts and all the facts about all aspects of communism in order to deal with it wisely and effectively. It is my obligation as a citizen to tell everything that I know”), affects bewilderment to playwright Robert Sherwood (“The Communists had done violence to everything I believed in, and still somehow I stayed silent and shrugged it off and minimized and looked the other way. Enough of that!”) and, most believably, to Budd Schulberg, expresses minor remorse curtailed by pragmatism (“I’ve been a little depressed now and then, but everytime I go over things, I feel I did right, so there is nothing to do but go on and do my work”).
And, of course, there’s the continual return to the self, to investigate, assess, and quite frequently, chastise. On a cover note to an unsent letter to Strasberg, Kazan wrote,
There is something very wrong with a relationship where you feel compelled to write a man this kind of letter. STOP APOLOGIZING. Strasberg is the last person to whom you apologize, constantly. That’s enough. You owe him nothing… You got free of him once. Now for the last time, get away from the marginal tiny foolish remnant of your father terror. If other people want to stay murked down in all that crap, that is their business. And his blaming you for his not doing more with the Actor’s Studio is sick. Just plain sick. Now I don’t feel any guilt about that. But I do seem to still want to rush to take care of him. ENOUGH!!!!
Whatever one thinks of Kazan, it’s difficult not to have some admiration for a man who exhibited such irrepressible drive, and was seemingly incapable of passive engagement. And it’s hard not to respect his certainty in knowing how to eventually find peace. The path was simple, and he offered it in a letter to his daughter Judy: “Want what you want.” All one had to do, finally, was follow his direction.
Steve Danziger is managing editor of Fiction magazine and a contributing editor at Open Letters.