June 19, 2013
Eric Lax on Elia Kazan
Posted on Aug 28, 2009
By Eric Lax
Original intent is a murky sea indeed if one wants to consider the U.S. Constitution, but for the work of Elia Kazan it now is an azure pool of clarity. In “Kazan on Directing,” Robert Cornfield has edited the notebooks and other writings of the man who was at the center of American theater and film in the mid-20th century to give us a portrait of the artist in his own words as he planned (and plotted, too, in what we see was his conspiratorial style) how best to bring a play or film to life.
It is impossible to overstate Kazan’s contribution to the world of American drama. He was a principal of the Group Theater and then the Actors Studio, which adapted Konstantin Stanislavsky’s “Method” notion that an actor will most naturally portray a character if he first has a psychological identification with the role. The list of actors trained in this discipline would fill a block of marquees. Among them: Marlon Brando, James Dean, Lee J. Cobb, Robert De Niro, Jo Van Fleet, Julie Harris, Karl Malden, Paul Newman, Geraldine Page and Eva Marie Saint. (“You have to start from the actor, and you have to find out where the part is alive for him. Somewhere within them the part must exist,” Kazan wrote.)
The films he directed include “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), “On the Waterfront” (1954), “East of Eden” (1955), “Baby Doll” (1956), “A Face in the Crowd” (1957), “Wild River” (1960), “Splendor in the Grass” (1961) and the autobiographical “America America” (1963). He received five Oscar nominations for his directing, won twice (“On the Waterfront” and “Gentleman’s Agreement”) and received an honorary award in 1999 for his “long, distinguished and unparalleled career during which he has influenced the very nature of filmmaking through his creation of cinematic masterpieces.” (There was considerable protest from a segment of Academy members because Kazan had testified as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities 47 years earlier.)
Kazan was fearless, fearsome, ferocious, pugnacious, instinctive, ambitious, compulsive, defiant, brutally honest, totally charming and, above all, insightful. He was a chronic and unrepentant womanizer. And he was a genius at, as he put it, turning “the inner events of the psyche into a choreography of external life.” (“A thought—directing … consists of turning Psychology into Behavior,” he wrote in 1947.) He looked ruthlessly into his own character and experience to find the heart and soul of a production.
Born in 1909 in Constantinople, he emigrated from Turkey to New York at age 4 with his Anatolian Greek parents, George and Athena Kazanjioglou. His mother doted on him and made him her confidant. His carpet salesman father responded with vengeance. “Don’t you look in the mirror?” George demanded when Elia declared his desire to be an actor. In truth, with what Cornfield describes as his “gnarly mug, with its large, jagged nose,” Kazan was not handsome, but that became the source of his strength. He parlayed his humiliation from his sense, even as a student at Williams College, that he was “an outsider. An Anatolian, not an American,” into an outcast’s desire for control and revenge. It worked. If he could not make himself into a successful actor, he would make successful actors, and productions that everyone talked about. Their triumphs put him “where I wanted to be, the source of everything.”
Including the transcription of his thoughts. It is instructive and pleasurable to read what Kazan had to say without benefit of a filter, and there is the bonus of seeing how his ideas change over time, and how he argues with the playwrights whose work he’s directing. With Tennessee Williams, for instance, there is a fascinating back-and-forth about the character of Brick in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to,” Williams wrote to Kazan. “Brick did love Skipper. … He identified Skipper with sports, the romantic world of adolescence which he couldn’t go past. Further: To reverse my original (and somewhat tentative) premise, I now believe that, in the deeper sense, not the literal sense, Brick is a homosexual with a heterosexual adjustment: a thing I’ve suspected of many others, such as Brando, for instance. (He hasn’t cracked up but I think he bears watching, he strikes me as being a compulsive eccentric.)”
Kazan had his own thoughts on Williams. Regarding “Sweet Bird of Youth,” “I think this is the most truly autobiographic play Williams ever wrote,” Kazan wrote to a friend. “Not in the way “[The Glass] Menagerie” was autobiographical—not a memory, softened and romanticized by time, of his youth, but Tennessee trying to describe his state of soul and state of being today and now. It is the frankest play he has written, dealing as it does with his own corruption and his wish to return to the purity he once had. … I don’t think Tennessee could live if he were unable to function as a writer. His art is necessary for him.”
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