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The defiant one

Elia Kazan A Biography Richard Schickel HarperCollins: 510 pp., $29.95

November 13, 2005|David Caute | David Caute is the author of many books, including "The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower" and "The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War." He is working on a study of contemporary American historians, "Beyond Denial."

FROM his formative years, Elia Kazan's role models among directors included Stanislavsky, Dovzhenko and the maestros of European expressionism. As a quintessentially American genius of stage and screen, passionately believing in "roots," Kazan unveiled Marlon Brando and James Dean for audiences far beyond America's shores. During his heyday (1930-60), Kazan virtually re-explored the terrain of Dos Passos' trilogy, "U.S.A." -- a continent and a Power wonderfully absorbed in itself.

Richard Schickel has produced the first "life" of Kazan (who died in 2003 at age 94), but he is quick to warn that this is a "critical biography." "It offers no more insight into Elia Kazan's personal life," Schickel writes, "than he himself offered in his own autobiography." If "personal" means "private" (money, women, dreams, shrinks), this is certainly true. Not only is Schickel's book about half the length of Kazan's "A Life" (1988), but its virtues -- an impressive knowledge of the terrain, soundly balanced judgments -- tend to blur the living personality of a man whose fierce competitiveness was inseparable from his flair as a showman. Arthur Miller commented that Kazan's purpose was always "to hit the audience in the belly because he knows all people are alike in the belly, no matter what their social position or education."

As actor and director, Kazan progressed from the avant-garde Group Theatre of the 1930s (famous for productions such as Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty") to a blatant enjoyment of the salaries and saunas on offer in the Hollywood studios. He abandoned acting. His personality seems to have gone through a violent mutation, from a lonely, rejected, sexually envious "frozen wolf" at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. (the lupine image was his own) to the upfront, often effusive, sexually conquering superstar of the Truman-Eisenhower era. Yet the wolf's far-from-casual snarl is heard again in his autobiography -- passages of defiant, in-your-face vulgarity, savage celebrations of sexual conquest in alleys and doorways, the predatory prowl of a loner looking for a pretty face in Central Park.

Kazan thrived in the kind of two-coast career that is more often dreamed of than achieved, working with such major literary talents as Miller, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, William Inge, John Steinbeck and Budd Schulberg. Schickel records that from March 1943 to the winter of 1953-54, Kazan directed 14 plays and 10 movies. Of the plays, nine became long-running hits, including "Death of a Salesman" and "A Streetcar Named Desire." His first picture, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," was hailed; "Gentleman's Agreement" brought him his first Academy Award. Calling the 15 years from 1944 "the most remarkable era any American director ever experienced," Schickel equates Kazan's heyday with Broadway's last moment "as a major contributor to the cultural and intellectual life of the country." His mastery of technique, his corrosive psychological lucidity, his nose for milieu -- the small town ("Baby Doll") as well as the big city ("On the Waterfront") -- provide the basis for his compelling brand of American realism. He perfectly understood Blanche DuBois, the washed-up salesman Willy Loman and Terry Malloy with his disfigured sense of honor.

Schickel frames his narrative, fore and aft, with Kazan's contentious honorary Oscar in 1999, when he was almost 90. After the award's announcement, uproar ensued. The protest group calling itself the Committee Against Silence took out a full-page ad in the trade papers, accusing Kazan of being "the man who validated the blacklisting of thousands" and gave credibility to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Almost half a century had passed since Kazan named names for the benefit of the committee. Many took the view that Kazan's sole motive had been to save his bacon as a director acceptable to 20th Century Fox and to moguls like Spyros Skouras and Darryl F. Zanuck, for whom he had recently shot a film with an oblique anti-Communist slant, "Viva Zapata!" starring Marlon Brando.

Kazan was undoubtedly angered (unreasonably, I think) by resistance from the government of Mexico, the preferred location, to the Steinbeck-Kazan story line, which aimed to expose Communist abuse of power by tenuous analogy. Kazan insisted that the real Zapata turned his back -- and his horse -- on power once it was within his grasp (as all good revolutionaries should do, but Leninists never did). John Womack's scholarly biography of Zapata lends little support to this interpretation, but Kazan's rising anti-Communism required it. Schickel devotes some excellent pages to this film and what he calls its "well-meaning Yankee ventriloquism," as when Zapata tells his followers, "A strong people doesn't need a strong leader. Strong leaders make a weak people." The making of "Viva Zapata!" and attacks on the film from the left provide significant clues to Kazan's subsequent decision to name names.

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