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Arts and Culture

Eric Lax on Elia Kazan

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Posted on Aug 28, 2009
book cover

By Eric Lax

(Page 2)

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):

Theme: This is the message from the dark interior. The little twisted, pathetic, confused bit of light and culture puts out a cry. It is snuffed out by the crude forces of violence, insensibility, and vulgarity that exist in our South—and this is the cry of the play.

Style: One reason a “style,” a stylized production, is necessary is that Blanche’s memories, inner life, emotions are a tangible, actual factor. We cannot understand her behavior unless we see the effect of her past on her present behavior.

The play is a poetic tragedy. We are shown the final dissolution of a person of worth, who once had great potential, and who, even as she is defeated, as she is destroyed, has a worth exceeding that of the “healthy,” course-grained figures who kill her.

Blanche and Don Quixote are both emblems of the death of an old culture. This is a poetic tragedy, not a realistic, naturalistic one. The acting must be styled, not in the obvious sense. (Say nothing about this to the producer and actors.)

 

book cover

 

Kazan on Directing

 

By Elia Kazan

 

Knopf, 368 pages

 

Buy the book

Of Stanley Kowalski (and himself) Kazan muses:

He means no harm. … Only he doesn’t want to be taken advantage of. ... Why does he want to bring Blanche, as he brought Stella [Kim Hunter], down to his level? It’s as if he said: “I know I haven’t got much, but no one has more and no one’s going to have more.” He’s the hoodlum aristocrat, and he’s deeply dissatisfied, deeply hopeless, deeply cynical. … Are we going into the era of Stanley? He may be practical and right, but where the hell does that leave us? Make this a personal objective characterization for Marlon Brando. Choose Marlon’s objects. The things he loves and prizes, all sensuous and sensual: the shirt, the cigar, the beer (how it’s poured and nursed).

Stanley is exactly like you in some ways. He’s supremely indifferent to everything else except his own pleasure and comfort.

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.

Eric Lax is the author or co-author of several biographies, including works on Paul Newman, Humphrey Bogart and Woody Allen.


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By Richard Schickel, August 31, 2009 at 9:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The responses to Erik Lax’s excellent review of Kazan on Directing are dismaying
on many counts, But to name just two: The book is not about politics, it is about
the art of directing and it is, as LAx suggests quite profound meditation on that
topic. But even if there were an excuse for bringing politics into the discussion.
the vulgarity of discourse and lack of a nuanced understanding of the politics
Kazan was involved in over a half century ago is appalling. These comments lend
credence to the widely held view that the Internet is an instrument of use only to
the illiterate and the uninformed. Or to put the point simply, your correspondents
don’t know what they’re talking about and they do not know how to speak above
the moron level.

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By prgill, August 30, 2009 at 11:02 pm Link to this comment

A good review and important reminder that you cannot always tell a wolf by his clothing.

Not that Kazan was a wolf. Kazan was an artist and director with a vision of human nature and hunger for success. Many of us share his view and drive.

There can be no question however, that he was manipulated, threatened with ruin and instrumentalized by the commercial interests that drive American public life, especially the entertainment industry.

As a first generation American he understood all too clearly the precarity and fickleness of success.

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By Mike Havenar, August 29, 2009 at 11:07 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Aw, give me a break. You all sound like a bunch of incorruptibles. But Sartre had your number: “cowards and traitors…” You would sell out yourselves if the price were right. You’re Americans, aren’t you? But you get off as presenting yourselves as the pure the noble and the proud. Ring Lardner, Zero Mostel, and others of the Hollywood 10 were the brave ones. I bet there aren’t two of you who would go to prison today. I don’t believe your self-righteous “outrage.”

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By dr wu, August 29, 2009 at 10:49 am Link to this comment

Great director, OK; but to tell on your friends to keep the scoundrel “red-Hunters” happy is the stuff of bad Hollywood movies.

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By dennis hayes, August 29, 2009 at 10:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.”  Oscar Wilde

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By Mitchell Freedman, August 29, 2009 at 7:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It is sad how Kazan continues to be attacked here.  He named named of people
who were already named by others.  He named names later in the game, after
holding out to the point where he had already risked his career.  There were far
less courageous people who named names who did not get the vitriol that was
leveled at Kazan.

For a group of liberal lefties who often ask that we forgive far worse offenses, and
rightly so (pun intended), we ought to be more charitable about Kazan.

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By thebeerdoctor, August 29, 2009 at 12:45 am Link to this comment

Folktruther and Mitchum have it right. All the Robert Osbornes in the world can not convince me that Streetcar or Waterfront are more than the turgid corny melodramas that they really are. Inarguably my foot…

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By ron hansing, August 28, 2009 at 9:24 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

On elia kazan…

A snitch is a snitch…. But hell, I love the guy too. sorta a love-hate thing.

East of Eden and streetcar, and splendor, my favorites.

The eternal question, I always ask: is it the director, the actors or the writers, the editors, alone that make the movies… or it the miracle of collaboration that either works or doesn’t work.

There is this story of a writer who demanded that they take his credits off the movie… and then he had to walk up to receive the academy award.

Ron Hansing 8.28.9

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By Folktruther, August 28, 2009 at 9:14 am Link to this comment

Kazan was the darling of the American power structure for selling out his socialist comrades, and supported in a career that sold out everyone else.  He is featured on Truthdig as another example of the function of the Progressive media to pull the progressive rank and file to the right.  Sanatizing scum like Kazan is what they do for a living.

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By mitchum22, August 28, 2009 at 8:01 am Link to this comment

INARGUABLY one of the greatest directors of the 20th Century? Maybe for someone brain-dead who knows nothing about the history of 20th Century film.

Leaving aside the fact that Kazan was a slimy, backstabbing asshole. (We all know that.) And perhaps he was a genius theater director. But how would Eric Lax or anyone know this, considering that the saddest thing about theater is that once it’s gone, it’s gone?

But as a movie director?? What in the world is the evidence of Kazan’s “greatness”? That piece of anti-union bilge “On the Waterfront”? Or maybe every cross-dresser’s favorite flick “Streetcar Named Desire”? Even his genre works are middle-brow ripoffs of the work of great directors such as Robert Siodmak and Anthony Mann: “Boomerang,” “Gentleman’s Agreement”(compare this damp squib with something like “Crossfire”), “Panic in the Streets,” “Man on a Tightrope.” And the rest of the list are social psychology exercises for self-enchanted mind-travelers who watch/read/listen to feel even more self-enchanted. Kazan—like all hucksters—rode the trend-wave of his time, in his case theories from Strasberg, the Actor’s Studio, the Method and similar junk.

Hawks, Ford, Welles, Cukor, Minnelli, Tourneur, Sirk, Aldrich, Preminger, Nick Ray, Anthony Mann, Walsh etc: Hollywood contemporaries. Beyond Hollywood: Dreyer, Bresson, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Renoir, Antonioni, Bunuel, Rossellini.

Anyone who thinks a hustler such as Kazan belongs in either group should be forced to watch “America, America” 100 times.

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By Blackspeare, August 28, 2009 at 7:22 am Link to this comment

But he named names!

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By Bob Mitchum, August 28, 2009 at 6:29 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

INARGUABLY one of the great directors of the 20th Century??? Perhaps to one who is brain dead and knows nothing about the history of 20th Century film.

Leave aside for the moment what kind of slimy, back-stabbing asshole Kazan was. (We all know about that.) And maybe he was a genius stage director. (But how would Eric Lax know that? One of the sad things about theater is that once it’s gone, it’s gone.)

As a movie director, what in the world could one provide as evidence of his “greatness”? That anti-union bilge known as “On the Waterfront”? Or perhaps every cross-dresser’s favorite flick “Streetcar Named Desire”? His genre work was always middle-brow and plagiarized from much better directors such as Robert Siodmak or Anthony Mann: “Boomerang,” “Gentlemen’s Agreement”(just compare that damp squib to the filmic power of “Crossfire”), “Panic in the Streets”, “Man on a Tightrope”. And the rest of the list is meaningless junk made for pretentious mind-travelers who view movies(or any popular art) as some sort of social psychology exam. Kazan—like all hucksters—rode the trend-wave, in his case the theories of Strasberg, the Method and similar junk.

Hawks, Ford, Welles, Cukor, Mann, Hitchcock, Minnelli, Nick Ray, Sirk, Tourneur, Walsh, Aldrich, Preminger etc: Hollywood contemporaries of Kazan. Looking outside: Dreyer, Bresson, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Naruse, Rossellini, Renoir, Antonioni, Kinoshita, etc.

Anyone who believes a hustler such as Kazan belongs in either of those groups should be forced to watch “America, America” 100 times in a row.

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