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Eric Lax on Elia Kazan
Posted on Aug 28, 2009
By Eric Lax
Kazan worked out what the core motive—he called it the “spine”—of a play or film was by first discovering what it meant for himself. Once he had personalized it, he then could work out its design and figure out the characters’ lives before the drama at hand. Here he is, peeling away at the essence of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and the character of Blanche DuBois (played by Jessica Tandy):
Of Stanley Kowalski (and himself) Kazan muses:
One of the many fascinations of “Kazan on Directing” is watching Kazan probe and circle and analyze every aspect of the stories, characters and actors to discern his “spine.” Directors can be divided into two very basic groups: those who are directing someone else’s work, and those who are directing their own. For Kazan and any other director of another person’s writing, the script is a puzzle to solve, “a construction,” as he put it. “We learn to feel for the skeleton under the skin of the words,” and the intellectual and psychological sweat Kazan expressed rivals that shed by a mathematician trying to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem. As a personal aside, over the last nearly 40 years, I’ve been in regular conversation with Woody Allen about his work and watched him go about it on about half of his films. He describes none of the agony and exhilaration of discovery Kazan does because all those questions were answered for him in the writing. Thus whereas a director of someone else’s work will often make a storyboard with the shooting of every scene detailed—something that has taken days and days to visualize—Allen arrives on the set and looks around the room with his cinematographer and they quickly decide on the shot because he has already seen the film in his head as he wrote it.
It is hard to imagine how a director could be more involved with his actors than was Kazan. Certainly no one was before him. Kazan’s practical and intellectual experience with training actors carried over into his work with them, and he treated each one differently, establishing a conspiratorial bond. Arthur Miller wrote that “[h]e would send one actor to listen to a particular piece of jazz, another to read a certain novel, another to see a psychiatrist, and another he would simply kiss. … Instinctively, when he had something important to tell an actor, he would huddle with him privately rather than instruct before the others, sensing that anything that penetrates is always to some degree an embarrassment. … He let the actors talk themselves into a performance.” And when he saw a natural tension that he liked, he exploited it, as he did in the film “East of Eden.” The venerable Raymond Massey was dismissive of the sullen James Dean, and Kazan captured their antagonism in the father-son relationship on the screen.
“This was an antagonism I didn’t try to heal; I aggravated it,” Kazan later wrote, pleased with the result. “The screen was alive with precisely what I wanted: they detested each other.”
Kazan’s supportive, even parental style with actors was not shared by many of his peers. John Ford, whose films Kazan admired, hated talking with actors, and William Wyler felt it was not his job to help an actor into a role. When a cast member once asked Wyler for insight into his character, Wyler is reported roughly to have said (and said roughly as well): “Fuck you. Get in there and act. I’m a movie director, not an acting coach.”
“Kazan on Directing” was decades in the making. Kazan, a fastidious note taker on his life and thoughts, long wanted to write a book on directing: not a how-to, but something that conveyed in an easy-going style the joy his work brought him. He began work on it when he was 78 (he died in 2003, age 94), writing bits on the physical and psychological preparations for production, pieced together with narrative. He never finished. In 1995 he gave the work-in-progress to the estimable Katherine Hourigan, now the managing editor at Alfred A. Knopf, who had worked with him on his 1988 autobiography, “Elia Kazan: A Life.” In addition to the material at Knopf, box upon box upon box of his writings, notes and diaries are collected at Wesleyan University. Robert Cornfield, a knowledgeable student of the theater who saw many of Kazan’s original productions, read the thousands of pages, edited them into this remarkable book and provided an illuminating commentary. The last chapter of Kazan’s thoughts in this book, “The Pleasures of Directing,” comprises the highlights of Kazan’s notes and his start on the book on that subject he hoped to write. Through Cornfield’s skillful editing and guidance, “Kazan on Directing” is much more than just a seminal director’s paean to his craft: It is a marvelous dissection and explanation of how Kazan brought to life some of America’s greatest pieces of drama, and at what personal price.
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