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Marvelously Selfish

Kazan on Directing

Edited and with commentary by Robert Cornfield

(Knopf, 368 pp., $32.50)

If anyone wants to make the case for Elia Kazan as one of the outstanding twentieth-century Americans, there is a famous text to call in support. I refer to A Life, Kazan's autobiography, published in 1988 at 848 pages (it was cut to make it a reasonable length), and one of the most forceful and engrossing books ever written about a life in the arts or show business. It came with Kazan not just alert still, but deeply concerned about self-justification; and so it took on his enemies and their grounds for disliking him, and shows not an atom of shame in describing his lust, his competitiveness, and the wolfish way in which "Gadge" (he was nicknamed for his ability to make things and machines work) could also manipulate most life situations to his advantage. It was a book made out of the confessions and boasts of a director who could not always tell drama from melodrama.

By 1947, Elia Kazan, not yet forty, held a unique position: he had put A Streetcar Named Desire on stage and had made a movie, Gentleman's Agreement, that won the Oscar for Best Picture. That movie is earnest about its good intentions to the point of boredom; it doesn't feel like Kazan now. But in Streetcar he changed the way people looked at the South, at sex, and at modern manhood. At the same time (with Robert Jones and Cheryl Crawford) he founded an entire system of acting--the one we call the Method or the Actors Studio style. (Lee Strasberg came along a little later and took it over.) Yet A Life makes it clear that Kazan was more than a director. He always wanted to be the center of the whole work, to be the artist, and this led him in later life to write several ordinary but successful novels. He was a calculating, unfaithful womanizer. He was a radical, and a member of the Communist Party for about fifteen months, and then a second-guesser to the cause. In person, he was a life force, appealing but tough, close to ugly, inspiring yet very insecure, and like all creative people whose work is not primary he was forever thinking anxiously that he had not done well enough.

Well, Kazan is gone now--he lived from 1909 to 2003--and this book is a natural way of celebrating his centenary. Kazan kept notes on all his productions, stage and film, and they have been edited to make a book that can shed light on what directors do. It may be that a great biography of Kazan is yet to come--Richard Schickel made a decent attempt in 2005, but seemed intimidated by the scale and the fervor of A Life and did not seek to rival it; and Jeff Young published a useful book in 1999 that was drawn from Kazan's lectures on his own films. So where does Kazan on Directing fit? I'm not sure, and I'm not reassured by its clunky apparatus--Kazan's own writing is edited and contained in Robert Cornfield's narrative, but there is also a foreword by John Lahr plus a preface by Martin Scorsese urging us to take the book seriously--when everyone is saying under their breath, if you really want to know Kazan you need to read A Life.

But open this book up and the problematic man and the intense, pointed gadget come alive again. I don't know why it should be, but the first half of the book--on theater--is far and away the best. Let it be said that the book allows twenty-five pages on the stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire and only eight-and-a-half pages on the movie. Moreover, the notes on the stage Streetcar amplify as well as anything yet published the degree to which Kazan changed that play as he worked on it.

To put the production in a nutshell: Kazan was nothing but heterosexual. He could understand, at some level, the homosexual fantasy in the play; and Tennessee Williams was exact about the need to poeticize every object and garment on stage. He knew that it was a play about Blanche DuBois. He saw clearly that Stanley Kowalski was secondary--a wrench applied with brute force to get his sister-in-law and her airs out of his house. But Kazan could not identify with Blanche, and he could not resist the imaginative resonance of Marlon Brando. And so, with varying degrees of self-awareness and immersion, he shifted the balance. Here are some of Kazan's notes, talking himself into boosting Stanley, like a second urging his fighter forward:

One of the important things about Stanley is that Blanche would wreck his home.... He's got the things the way he wants them around there, and he does not want them upset by a phony, corrupt, sick, destructive woman. This makes Stanley right! Are we going into the age of Stanley?... Stanley is exactly like you in some ways [Kazan means himself]. He is supremely indifferent to everything except his own pleasure and comfort. He is marvelously selfish, a miracle of sensuous self-centredness.

In passages like that, and in the overall treatment of A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth on stage, we hear and feel the Kazan of A Life and we gain insight into those plays. It may be added that Kazan was really not suited to the work of Tennessee Williams. But that objection is too late now: the opening night of Streetcar made the playwright, just as it established Marlon Brando. And who played Blanche? Jessica Tandy! (She was replaced for the film by the starrier Vivien Leigh.) I should also note (this is not in the book), that Kazan's leaning on Stanley included the director having an affair with Kim Hunter, the actress playing Stella, Mrs. Kowalski.

So far so good. But in a career in which Kazan's own excitement shifted from stage to screen, his notes on the films are far less readable and far less stimulating. Consider this book's treatment of East of Eden, made in 1954. I pick that film because it is one of the best-known pictures Kazan ever made, and because it was and remains a hit. Having cost about $1.6 million, it had first-run rentals of $5 million--and it still plays regularly on television. You can attribute its lasting popularity to the fact that it is one of James Dean's only three films, but Kazan was not a bystander in that process. He discovered Dean for the movie. He encouraged and fussed over the very difficult kid. More than that, he shifted the balance of the Steinbeck saga to showcase Dean (and to demonstrate how Dean and Kazan were blood brothers). It has always been a successful film because it is a genuinely powerful melodrama--even if it may leave the adult viewer a little shame-faced over his or her tears.

In Kazan on Directing, the section on East of Eden begins with Kazan's testimony: "East of Eden is more personal to me; it is my own story." If you hear warning signals there, keep your head down. Robert Cornfield then offers the storyline of the movie. That seems like a basic task, and Cornfield's version is accurate enough--until he says that Kate (Jo Van Fleet), the mother and brothel-keeper in Monterey discovered by farm-boy Cal (Dean), from Salinas, "has no sentimental interest in this son."

Now, that's not the film I have always seen. The misty morning sequence in Monterey where Cal follows Kate is one of the greatest passages of film in Kazan--it uses color and CinemaScope with daring beauty, and it hints at delicate ties between the two people. Each one is mysteriously seduced by the other. Kate may wish that Cal had never turned up. She may be confused, torn, angry, and horrified. But if you think that there is no "sentimental interest," then there must be very different of ways of watching a movie pass on the screen. Cornfield notes that color and Scope were new for Kazan, but he gives little account of what the director does with them, and this is owed to a crucial error in this book: the notion that "directing" means handling actors and plot, and not camera, light, space, movement, color, and rhythm.

Moving on to Cornfield's description of how Kazan altered (or slaughtered) the Steinbeck novel: this is backed up by a self-serving and not very pleasant letter from Kazan to Steinbeck himself. The movie of East of Eden cut a potential ten-hour picture down to two hours. It omits the early warring between Kate and her husband Aron. It dumps the Chinese house servant Lee, who, for good and ill, serves the novel as a benign intermediary. All of this is collapsed into the story of Cal, Aron, Adam, and Abra. (Adam is Cal's brother and Abra is Adam's girlfriend.)

But the letter from Kazan to Steinbeck--which has the purpose of easing Steinbeck off the picture, so that a hired scriptwriter can do Kazan's bidding-- makes clear the extra stress put on Cal in the film. You may say that this was because Kazan had discovered Dean and his potential--things hardly assisted by casting the pallid Dick Davalos as the "nice" brother Adam. I suspect that Dean's raw ability crept up on Kazan, but there is also another reason for emphasizing Cal, and it is one that dogs Kazan's work: he needed a hero he could identify with, a character who carries the director's own fantasy energy to the screen.

It is a measure of Kazan's charm and persuasiveness, and of the mood that he established in which he was the maker of these works, that he was able to pull such shifts. But make no mistake: it was Kazan the director who hacked at Steinbeck's novel until it became a film about a dark, resentful, self-pitying kid. If you feel that such a conclusion is too strong, look at the film again and see how far Dean's genius (massaged by Kazan's care) makes the unpleasant Cal into a sentimental hero. Yet as this book's account of the film goes on, the notes show Kazan lamenting the film for the very things he had forced into it: "Don't let him off easy. In East of Eden, you let Dean off easy. Therefore the end is false!... Sentimentality is the enemy of drama.... It is the sister of self-pity." Amen to all that--but what is it that prevents Kazan from seeing that no one bears guilt for this failure as much as the director? It's as if Kazan had to make these stories about himself, but then backed off from the necessary judgment that follows.

This is the place to add that East of Eden followed On the Waterfront, which in turn followed Kazan's decision to name names to the House Committee on Un- American Activities in 1952. This book leaves that great crisis to an afterword, as if to say it has been done to death. That is not quite good enough. Kazan himself knew that the crisis would never fade away, which is why so much of A Life is devoted to it. Indeed, I would argue that Kazan's artistic identity as a filmmaker took wing with his testimony, because it freed him to identify with dark outsiders like Cal. After all, Cal is Cain, and East of Eden is a picture that teaches the father to appreciate Cain as the "good" son.

So, in the end, the section on East of Eden in Kazan on Directing is flawed by the decision just to reprint things Kazan said without generating a proper analysis of what goes into the picture. Blind to composition or to the subtlety of Jo Van Fleet's performance, the book misses East of Eden as an authentic 1950s melodrama, a women's picture for boys--a weepie in which the object of sorrow (for us and for himself) is the teenage boy. As such its mastery is close to what Kazan intended deep down: it was a hit, and it helped to prove his uncanny ability with newcomers, and with the kind of pained psychological originality that Dean possessed. (Cornfield quotes Kazan as saying that Dean got a scene right 95 per cent of the time--or never got it right! Those odds sound like phenomenal acting to me, but this only throws into question Cornfield's other assertion that Kazan "made" the performance.)

Alas, this book is not as helpful as one might wish on the intimacy at which Kazan excelled: getting an actor to find himself in a part. We hear that on East of Eden, he deliberately set James Dean and Raymond Massey to hating each other, and we may accept that unkind ploy for the sake of the film. But that story has been told many times before. There is next to nothing new on how Kazan soothed and propelled Dean into his greatest performance. So this may be a good time to look back on the Actors Studio style. Kazan was always its greatest example, its meal ticket. Starting in the 1930s, when he was an actor with the Group Theatre, he reacted against the effete stylization of English acting. He called for a muscular, authentic, hesitant American truth, and he was prepared to base it in the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavsky, though the real test was movies that flourished and made stars of the actors. Kazan was a godfather-like figure to Clift, Brando, and Dean, and he was the director for Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, and so many others in a tradition that does not stop with Pacino, De Niro, and Sean Penn.

That way of acting in movies revolutionized their world, but in time it led to formulaic heartfelt confessions of the inner self in every trite episodic drama on television. The audience could not stomach so much "truth," and the style risked--no, crossed the line into--self- parody, as witness so many recent huff-and-puff performances from Pacino as versions of Satan, and the stately self-congratulation of Inside the Actors Studio, a series that has included many players who were never close to the Method as well as a host, James Lipton, locked into the old English tradition. Of course, the Studio and its influence coincided with the 1950s movie, live TV drama, and a very self- conscious stress on American maleness. (The Method is not as convincing when it deals with actresses.) It relied on writers such as Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, and Paddy Chayefsky.

It had its moment and it left a rich legacy. But in theater and in film, we have begun to tire of its mannerisms. Naturalism is on the wane, and dramatists as varied as Beckett, Pinter, and Ayckbourn have been better served by old- fashioned pretending than by Strasbergian authenticity. The first two parts of The Godfather may be the best monument to the Method and to Kazan, just as much as A Streetcar Named Desire or Death of a Salesman; and they show how far the Method promoted a kind of sinister, taciturn machismo--a justified male self- pity that covers Terry in On the Waterfront, Cal in East of Eden, and Michael Corleone's stricken authority. Kazan could have played Hyman Roth as well as Lee Strasberg played him. The future health of film and theater in America may depend on the recognition of adventure and variety in acting. The truth is that Brando was pretending, in the classical pre-Method way, in The Godfather and also in several other movies, where he seemed irked and ill-served by the great load of sincerity. Acting, we have learned, is as close to lying as it is to truth.

Kazan's movies are hijacked by their dark heroes and their unamused point of view. Their failure to step back, to see other lives as being as worthy and as foolish as the central life (Wild River is an exception) is what plunges Kazan into melodrama instead of drama. That is why so many of his films date badly and leave the neurotic detail of the central performance as stranded as special pleading. Kazan could see no alternative to psychological discovery in acting, but he turned it into a stale habit. More than fifty years later, the deliberately "flat" acting in the films of Robert Bresson--Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, and Pickpocket, all films of the 1950s--seems so much more seductive and mysterious, and such a surer lead to a vision of the larger world. Kazan glorified the actor in the way the Romantic movement did the poet and the composer. But we can now see the actor as a model for the trickster, the fraud, the impersonator.

East of Eden is a strange, warped melodrama in which Cal has to be "right," and more deserving than anyone else. Streetcar is less of a play the more Stanley is allowed to dominate. To rephrase Jean Renoir (in La regle du jeu), we like to see that everyone has his or her own reality now--ensemble acting seems a way of life. But being "right"--having Cal's need made triumphant--is actually a disservice to life's complexity. Acting will recover, though James Lipton may stretch the Method's funeral out for some more years. We have some actors now who, even if they were once a part of the Method, are more open to pretense: Malkovich, Spacey, Day-Lewis, Macy, Tommy Lee Jones, Jeff Bridges. They have their tradition, and it once included Cary Grant, Astaire, William Powell, Olivier, Robert Mitchum, Anthony Perkins (in Psycho), Robert Walker (in Strangers on a Train), Brando, Clift--actors who flirted with the brink of authenticity, like tightrope walkers. It was closer to "gay" acting than to manly self-revelation. But America may at last be advancing beyond parables where men find their inner selves.

Kazan was a man of his moment and his moment was the 1950s, when he made himself a character in America as vivid, as omnivorous and as desperate to be loved as Norman Mailer, Sugar Ray Robinson, or Lucille Ball. Kazan on Directing adds too little to what we know, but the first half of the book is golden and no would-be director or actor will read it without benefit. But if you want the real man--untidy, but so alive; candid, yet so devious that he did not hear himself; addicted to honesty, but driven to betray associates; sold on true feeling, but never trusting it--you have to go back to A Life. There is a great play to be written about Elia Kazan, a monster of self-deluding sincerity, but the gadget in his dreams of glory.

David Thomson is the author most recently of Have you Seen? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (Knopf) and Try to Tell the Story (Knopf).

By David Thomson