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Dirty Realism

KAZAN: The Master Director Discusses His Films: Interviews With Elia Kazan; \o7 By Jeff Young; (Newmarket Press: 352 pp., $29.95)\f7

July 18, 1999|PETER BISKIND | Peter Biskind is the author of "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood."

To a certain generation of a certain political stripe, Elia Kazan will always be the Whittaker Chambers of Hollywood--minus Alger Hiss of course, because the director never seemed to come up with the big score, never gave the House Committee on Un-American Activities the mole who fed Mosfilm, say, Darryl Zanuck's secret formula for box office success.

That said, it is hard not to warm to Kazan, or at least to the Kazan presented in the pages of Jeff Young's book-length interview, which is to say, the version of himself that he has chosen to present because the author or editor or compiler--whatever--is frank about the collaborative nature of the enterprise that Kazan apparently reviewed and approved. The voice that was so beguiling in the director's extraordinary, doorstop-sized 1988 autobiography is back again for an encore. He comes off like a character out of Damon Runyon. He is blunt and candid. His language is earthy. He is generous in his praise of others and cloaks his own contribution in a becoming garment of modesty, refusing, for example, credit for the legendary "I could'a been a contendah" scene in "On the Waterfront," which he attributes entirely to the genius of the actors, Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger.

Young approached this project with a naivete that is likewise appealing, hoping to extract from the master the secrets of the trade that would help him in his own infant directing career (the interviews were conducted in the early '70s), as if 50-odd years of experience could be reduced to a list of dos and don'ts. Still, the student was magnificently rewarded, probably well beyond his wildest expectations, because Kazan is a born teacher, articulate, even eloquent about the principles that animated his practice. It is not often that a director talking about the nuts and bolts of his craft rises to the level of wisdom about life.

Young's book was a news story even before it hit the stores. It had the good fortune to coincide with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' controversial canonization of the director with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Much of this ground will be familiar to Kazaniks from Michel Ciment's book-length interview published in 1974 and the subsequent autobiography. Still, the intelligence that shines through Kazan's recollections transcends both the nagging sense of deja vu and the how-to format, to make this a must-read, particularly for the general reader wondering what all the hullabaloo was about.

As Young reminds us, Kazan bestrode the American theater like a colossus for nearly 15 years, directing all the great plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, along with classics from Thornton Wilder, William Inge and Archibald MacLeish. He quotes Arthur Penn, who had his own extraordinary run after Kazan, saying, "For years, if any director even got to read a play, it meant that Kazan had already passed on it." Kazan's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" was a cataclysmic event that shook theater to its roots. He is justly celebrated for "discovering" Marlon Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty; for helping Brando give the two greatest screen performances of his career, in "Streetcar" and "Waterfront"; and for nurturing an array of exceptional if lesser talent like Julie Harris, Patricia Neal, Lee Remick, Rod Steiger and Karl Malden. Along with Lee Strasberg, he revolutionized screen acting by introducing the Method to Hollywood and by so doing helped nurture a younger generation of performers that included Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson. His commitment to emotional and physical naturalism led American cinema away from actorish performances in set-bound studio films and into the streets, paving the way for a new poetry of the real, an expressionism or "essentialism," as Kazan calls it, grounded in the concreteness of actual locations. As Young says, "His job, as he saw it, was not simply to entertain but to leave the audience with something when they went home, to change their lives."

A former actor himself, Kazan is very likely the greatest actor's director who ever lived. Here he is explaining his technique: "Before I start with anybody in any important role, I talk to them, for a long time . . . and before you know it, they're telling you about their wives, their mothers, their children, their infidelities and anything else they feel guilty about. . . . By the time you start with an actor, you know everything about him, where to go, what to reach for, what to summon up, what associations to make for him. . . . You try to put little darts into their own histories."

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