SUMMING UP one's life in art is no picnic. The director Elia Kazan, in his late 70s, found the job impossible. Maybe he waited too long. After serving as midwife to playwrights like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and William Inge, he had walked away from the theater in 1964. His career as auteur of such celluloid classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, Splendor in the Grass, and America America had come to an end in 1976 with The Last Tycoon. (He liked that French word, with its intimations of total control.) In 1983 he had attempted something new; but The Chain, a gloss on the Oresteia, was a total write-off. "I finally tried to write a play," he said. "It taught me to value playwrights. I failed."
Despite working at it for seven years, the book on directing that Kazan envisioned refused to materialize. "I still think of myself as a beginner," he confessed somewhere in the sheaf of pages he finally abandoned to an editor at Knopf. He also mentioned that in his old age he fell asleep while reading, was out of touch with young actors, no longer felt the fire in his belly, and had grown indifferent to or incapable of sex. This previously unpublished matter makes up the bulk of the closing section of Kazan on Directing. Entitled "The Pleasures of Directing," it accounts for slightly less than 40 of the work's 341 pages—a thick slab of stale cake spiked with some tasty morsels.
Yes, Kazan reveals, a director "falls" for members of his cast. "The wise partners of the actor and director will expect this and understand and not resent whatever develops," he advises. "The partner can be sure of one thing. The relationship between director and player will not last."
Other nuggets: There is no such thing as realistic theater. A film script is more architecture than literature. When you are the director, everything is your fault. It is better to be bold than careful. The actor's life experience is the director's material. "Just getting a 'good actor,' an able technician of the stage or screen, is not enough. You will end up with a British film." "The Fountain of Youth is in yourself." Don't take taxis.
There is zest, too, in throwaway reminiscences, like the one about the cameraman Leon Shamroy (known to his crew as "Grumble-gut"). He never bothered to read a shooting script and would show up every morning wanting to know, "What's the garbage for today?"
The balance of the closing section is given over to Kazan's talk "On What Makes a Director," delivered at Wesleyan University in 1973. Here he regales his audience with a list of all a director needs to know: literature, opera, the American musical, acrobatics, "the banana peel and the custard pie," the fine arts, dance, classical and popular music, costuming, lighting, "the City" (complete with "its cathedrals and its whorehouses"), topography, animals, the handling of neurotics, the psychology of audiences, the erotic arts, pornography, war.
"Oh my," Kazan exclaims in midstream, "where is the time to learn all this?" "Life," he advises, "is a prime source." (How true.) That said, he finally names the subject the director must know best of all: "Right. Himself." A reader unaware of Kazan's enduring legacy might suppose this tin-pot Socrates just a pompous ass—an impression reinforced by his penchant for exclamation points and protestations about his good taste. Gratuitous broadsides and digs against such diverse targets as Orson Welles, Walt Disney, his fellow director Harold Clurman, and Clurman's wife, the acting guru Stella Adler, leave a bad taste. So do his self-serving rationalizations about his unforced testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but let's not go there.
Yet the book gets off to a good start with a Foreword by the distinguished drama critic John Lahr that provides a masterful overview of Kazan's personality, methods and achievements. In addition, there is a glowing Preface by film director Martin Scorsese. "He is one of the most important figures in the history of movies," Scorsese declares. "It's that simple. His documentary eye, his ability to home in on the subtlest behaviors and interactions, his sense of surprise and beauty within the frame, his remarkable ear for sound, his astonishing sensitivity to atmosphere . . . these were just a few of his gifts as a filmmaker. For me, Kazan is beyond 'important,' 'central,' or 'influential.'
I grew up watching his pictures, and they were instrumental in forming my ideas of cinema, what it was and what it could be. They were equally instrumental in helping me to understand myself, I think."
SANDWICHED between those tributes and the "Pleasures" diptych are 200- plus pages of selections from Kazan's autobiography, notebooks, journals, letters, and other such sources, along with pertinent bits and pieces by Kazan's collaborators and the occasional critic. All of this has been selected and annotated by the respected literary agent Robert Cornfield, who draws on material written over the span of six decades. Much of it has been published before.
By Kazan's own account, his early movies amounted to little more than stage productions "objectively" documented by the camera, but soon he learned to use the camera "subjectively." Again by his own account, an early obsession with minute psychological stirrings eventually gave way to an interest in broader dramatic strokes. Deep down, however, he changed very little. Early and late, Kazan tended to view any dramatic situation through the eyes of a protagonist who was a stand-in for himself. By the same token, he projected his personal issues onto society at large. (To acknowledge Kazan's self-centeredness is not to deny his talent.)
In dealing with actors, playwrights and enforcers of the notorious Production Code, Kazan preferred to write letters. Supposedly the written word gave his correspondents space to reflect on the content in private. At the same time, it spared him the bother of a genuine give-and-take. Whether he is fawning or bullying (and there are ample instances of both), we sense the Word being handed down from the Mount— defensively, repetitiously, and frequently at interminable length. "Anyway," Kazan tells Tennessee Williams at one point, having patronized the playwright as "son," "I am going on and on about the same thing." Cornfield keeps letting him get away with it. Had a capable editorial hand pruned some letters remorselessly and tossed out the rest, this book would be half its length and no reader the worse.
As an annotator, Cornfield is equally clueless. He drops in detailed synopses for classics like Death of a Salesman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth, but none for forgotten fare like Boomerang! or A Face in the Crowd or Wild River. Footnotes clarify obvious references but not obscure ones. The Chronology at the end, sorted into no fewer than seven sections, is maximally useless for piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of Kazan's creative life. As for the focused treatise promised by the title, forget it. Kazan on Directing is in essence a scrapbook. Swallowing it whole is not recommended.
By dogged effort a reader may glean hallmarks of Kazan's craft. On general principle, he liked to be able to do anything he asked anyone else on a production to do. (Intimates called him Gadg—as in "gadget," thanks to his youthful reputation among stagehands and their ilk as a mechanical whiz.) He had the theoretical Method lingo down pat, yet at heart he ran on intuition. Brando, he thought, was a genius best left to his own devices: "A few words, a touch, and a smile will do it. Then wait for a miracle."
On East of Eden, it served his purposes to fan the flames of antagonism between the old-timer Raymond Massey and the new boy James Dean, who had charisma but neither experience nor technique. And when a neophyte on the set of A Face in the Crowd failed to cry on cue, Kazan marched up to him, slapped him hard, and called for the cameras to start rolling. Were his instincts always spot-on? We may wonder. He considered cops (as a class) good natural actors; his first choice for the Streetcar diva Blanche DuBois was Mary Martin. He regarded Baby Doll, which culminates in arson, as a taboo-breaking comedy of middleaged ardor. Like some other American disciples of Stanislavsky, Kazan was more intrigued by ants in the pants than Russian toothaches of the soul. But if sex and violence were his stock in trade, it was partly a matter of survival. The threat of television panicked him. Under the onslaught of home entertainment, he felt, Hollywood had to venture ever further into the realm of the forbidden— wrestling the Production Code all the way. If this disheveled anthology has any great lesson to impart, it is the same one Henry James is said to have given a young novelist: "Try to be one on whom nothing is lost." And in rare paragraphs Kazan's prose reveals his mind in crystal focus, as in the following reflection on America America:
"I used to say to myself when I was making the film that America was a dream of total freedom in all areas. I made two points about that. One was that America had a responsibility to the dream: The dream has a responsibility to the dreamer. And furthermore, what these people availed themselves of when they got here, what they turned the dream into, was the freedom to make money. Money became their weapon; it was the symbol of strength."
Although there are no pragmatic pointers for a fledgling director in Kazan on Directing, that passage may best indicate what made Kazan the artist he was. Beyond the technique or formula or knowhow one practitioner might pass down to another, he possessed a sensibility, innate ideals, an acquaintance with disillusionment, disappointment and betrayal. Learning these things from books is hard, but as Kazan tells us, life is a prime source.