Compromising Positions

Compromising Positions

Richard Schickel’s biography of Elia Kazan is a laudatory postscript to a life marked by social turmoil, political strife and artistic intensity.


“I used to spend most of my time,” Elia Kazan once remarked, “straining to be a nice guy so people would like me.” Nice and like are irrelevant to most people’s idea of Kazan, but strain was his essence, the strain of a life bristling with projects. One of the last parts he played in a film was Googie, the mobster in City for Conquest who bets on the good-guy boxer (James Cagney), loses when the other fighter cheats and gets knocked off before he can take revenge. His dying words are “Gee, I never figured on that.” Kazan’s memoir, A Life, suggested a similar character with one difference; for, by a gift of fortune that baffles him, he turns out to be a winner. A Life was a work of egotism, yet it was in no way self-satisfied. And there was another quality that made it wonderfully readable: the sense that the author had not yet solved his relation to himself. Richard Schickel’s biography is a more complacent book, a story in talkative prose about a life filled with achievements and events. Schickel is a thoroughly professional journalist, with the advantage of genuine interest in his subject. He saw, he tells us, every play Kazan directed in the 1950s, and he is able to draw on his own interviews with Kazan for the later years. The self-suspicion and wariness of the autobiography left room for a laudatory postscript, and this is it.

George Kazanjioglou was his father: an Anatolian Greek who immigrated to America and went into the rug business with his brother. Elia was marked by the family for higher things, sent to Williams College and then the Yale School of Drama. He stopped short of an advanced degree but arrived in New York with something better: an introduction to the Group Theatre. The nickname Gadg, for Gadget, came out of those early theater days when he scuttled about, “an ever-compliant cuss” always in motion while others rested, fixing a lamp, moving a chair, never too big for the chickenshit jobs. Not an ingratiating quality, entirely, but it made him indispensable; and the anecdotes of friends and followers (Nicholas Ray was one) concur on his reputation as an iron man, a “theater worker” with both words stressed. Kazan never understood what kept him on the move. For explanation, Schickel relies, with a certain smugness, on the enigma of “the Anatolian smile.” Did the Kazan ferocity and push come from an intimation he would dramatize in his film America America, that in this country no place of rest is permanent? He clearly felt that, however impressive his list of honors, legitimacy depended on the success of what came next.

This unstable blend of worldliness and self-doubt gave Kazan a common motive with the two major playwrights of his generation, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. They preferred Kazan to other directors because his intimacy and vehemence made a palpable addition to the words on the page. Yet it was mainly his collaboration with these two and perhaps a third, William Inge, that gave a distinctive character to Kazan’s work. And the association of success and bad faith was a perpetual theme of their plays–financial, social and erotic success, the very things that Kazan enjoyed in bulk. The men who prosper in the plays of Miller, Williams and Inge are counterfeit citizens, figures of brutality or mendacity. On the other hand, the men who fall for the dream are figures of pathos. Kazan admitted in A Life that of all the imaginative works of his time, the one he had always admired most, because it told a permanent truth about himself and his generation, was Death of a Salesman. It is not an inevitable judgment, but it is a revealing one.

For he prospered greatly and half believed the dream. In the Group Theatre he was a respected player, usually in smaller parts than Morris Carnovsky or Luther Adler but entrusted with the lead in Golden Boy when it went on the road to Chicago. Yet his great moment had come early: He was the cabby on strike, sitting in the audience with a rabbit’s foot in his visor, who ran up onstage to blow the cover of the labor spy in a climactic episode of Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty. “Take care of him, boys,” the union boss said. “No one takes care of me!” shouted Kazan. The left-wing theater in New York grew out of the closing cry of Strike! that roared through the audience the night of January 6, 1935. Kazan led that cheer, and as Schickel tells it, he was part of the core group that made the company work, alongside Cheryl Crawford, the producer and publicist; Harold Clurman, a director of great gifts inside narrow limits; and Lee Strasberg, coach and spellbinder, already famous for a tyrannical peevishness. Odets, a close friend of Kazan’s, remarked of him tellingly that “he distrusts everyone, even the people he loves…. This gives him adjustments of furtiveness, carefulness, watchfulness.” He must have seemed the natural choice to serve as ad hoc leader of the Communist Party unit of the Group Theatre. The party bigwigs wanted the company to turn themselves into an actors’ cooperative and move toward an agitprop repertory.

Kazan resisted, with strong support from his wife, Molly. To judge by his own account, he witnessed a complete failure of nerve by other members of the unit when a UAW organizer denounced him for leading with a “‘foreman’s’ mentality.” Later thoughts may color his memory of the incident, yet one somehow trusts the story of his personal revulsion at the anaesthetic diktat. If revolutionary theater was the aim of the group, he wondered, why should they take instruction from people who knew nothing about theater? Party allegiance, for him, lasted from summer 1934 to spring 1936; but inwardly he was pulling away from the Communists almost as soon as they recruited him. It was the nature of the Popular Front to mask the depth and character of loyalties, but Kazan was a successful working actor in the late 1930s and early ’40s, and not a party operative with a sideline in acting. Calls to play small parts in films occasionally came his way. In this experimental phase, he also had a shot at directing a musical, Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus–an experience he did not repeat and was able to weather by following Agnes de Mille’s advice to keep off the stage while she handled the music and dance. By 1942, when he directed The Skin of Our Teeth–a work of bogus humanism that fit the wartime mood like a glove–Kazan was launched on a different path. He traced a new self-confidence to his public triumph in staring down Tallulah Bankhead when she tried to steal the show and undermine his authority in rehearsals. He was known thereafter as a director who did not wheedle with the stars. Where useful, he would do without them.

Kazan got his first chance to direct a film in 1944, with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: a work of sentimental realism about an immigrant family, for which his work on Odets’s Awake and Sing had been excellent preparation. To play the part of the Irish father, affectionate, self-deceived and down on his luck from too much drinking, he called on an actor, James Dunn, whose career had suffered from indulgence in the same vices. It is a movie that stays in one’s mind for three scenes: Joan Blondell’s warning to Dorothy McGuire that she has hardened her heart against a well-meaning and loving husband; McGuire’s effort to recover her trust and affection for him; and the daughter’s prayer to let her father live after he disappears one night. Two of the scenes are one-on-one; the third is a soliloquy–a pattern that would hold true of the Kazan “touch” throughout his career in theater and film.

What cinematic knowledge is reflected in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn would be hard to say; in his memoir, Kazan confessed he knew nothing about filmmaking until his sixth or seventh movie. Yet the audience was drawn to a naturalism the stage had seldom brought so close, and to an intimacy of feeling that is hard to achieve on film with commonplace talk and domestic drama. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a Christmas movie, but it showed more about Kazan than several that followed (Boomerang, Gentleman’s Agreement, Pinky); and Schickel rightly marks it as the beginning of a twenty-year run during which Kazan had few rivals anywhere, and none who could shift as he did from stage to screen. Between 1945 and 1965, he directed All My Sons, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, After the Fall, Viva Zapata!, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd, Splendor in the Grass–a fair portion of the works people were apt to have in mind when they spoke of the serious postwar American theater or cinema.

The fault of all these pieces is too much talk–a fault not due to Kazan alone but indicative of a larger weakness for the explicit, shared by American dramatists and salesmen and ego psychologists, with their need to thresh things out. A striking feature of Kazan’s best movies is that they are alive while the actors talk, and they go dead when the talking stops. Let the image stand by itself and things quickly get so stagy we seem to be seeing captioned illustrations by Thomas Hart Benton or Ben Shahn–Stanley tearing up the kitchen in Streetcar, or the longshoremen marching into the ship to get their rights at the end of On the Waterfront.

Set Kazan to work on a project like Pinky, about a black woman “passing,” or Gentleman’s Agreement, a tamely responsible treatment of anti-Semitism, and he could see the triteness of the material. He did not defend the results but did not renege on the commitment. Out of these dubious engagements, he derived a measurable profit. When the big studios wanted a solemn look at a social problem, Kazan was the man to go to; and in the long run, the prestige allowed him to choose his films. “The actor’s director” was also a writer’s director, and the writers he most wanted to work with–Steinbeck, for example, on Viva Zapata!–thought of him first, and came to him. Kazan had inoculated himself against moralism to some extent by his work on plays like Dunnigan’s Daughter by S.N. Behrman–where, as Ann Jackson said, you have to “hold a cocktail shaker in one hand and a hammer and sickle in the other.” He knew how to guide public speech down to a private motive and keep the interest there. “He had no visual sense,” Agnes de Mille observed. “Kazan had no eyes at all.” This would remain a weakness; but she added that “he had a wonderful ear…not for music, but for speech.” This was a greater strength than we easily recognize half a century later. It was the age of Roosevelt and Churchill and the radio, a time when persuasive utterance, speech that drove to a conclusion, was an art that seemed hardly separate from nature.

Kazan’s career was split in two by a public episode: his testimony in 1952 as a friendly witness for the House Un-American Activities Committee, when he named the names of former communist associates. Against the charge that he was therefore a coward, a betrayer, a Judas, Schickel mounts a strangely misjudged and heavy-handed defense. For there are situations in which it is difficult to come off with honor, and this was one of them. The witnesses who took the Fifth Amendment until the chairman sent them home were in a false position, too. But there was nothing admirable in Kazan’s timely siege of candor; and when he took out a personal ad in the New York Times on the virtues of coming clean, it was bound to be noticed that his self-exposure was also a professionally valuable self-exoneration. Schickel reminds us that the Communist Party in the 1930s and early ’40s did great harm to the integrity of the American left. Who now denies that it did, or that there were real spies? But the people hit by the Red Channels list were not spies. Most of those named had not been members of the party for years. Few could ever have been a threat. And however wadded by panic and self-deception, the committee knew this well enough. It did not want assistance in thwarting a menace to the physical well-being of the United States. It wanted examples to keep a lid on dissent. To cooperate was to truckle, to bow your head and confess your shame, to deliver the token names and receive the government-approved stamp. The character actor Jeff Corey was blacklisted for thirteen years and lived on $35 a week and the help of friends. Kazan took the other route and throve.

“I’ve acquired contradictory reputations over the years,” he recalled in A Life: “aloof and social, secretive but open-faced, agreeable or cantankerous, concerned, indifferent, generous, cheap, given to unannounced appearances and to sudden disappearances. The reputation I’d rather not have picked up is for being a betrayer of trust. I haven’t liked that.” Though the HUAC episode shook him, the aftermath seems to have left the texture and even the politics of his work untouched. A more inquisitive biographer might have asked how that happened. Kazan in any event remained a liberal filmmaker, if not quite one who (as Schickel grandiosely puts it) “never abandoned his working-class sympathies or his belief in the need for some sort of revolutionary reform in America.” But the enmity he incurred on the left was conspicuous as late as 1999, when Kazan received a special award from the Motion Picture Academy and many in the audience refused to applaud. His friend Arthur Miller had defied the committee and risked being jailed for contempt; but in 1963, seeking a director for After the Fall (a play that dealt with the HUAC testimony and contained characters modeled on both men), he sought out Kazan, and the two joined forces again. Miller did not equivocate, and yet he judged his friend charitably.

Schickel is playing for the higher stakes of total vindication. Kazan, he thinks, was justified because the communists had it coming on various grounds–for tampering with the arts, for political bullying and for the danger they posed to freedom itself–so that standing up and being counted against them was an act of honor. This is to miss the crucial point that Kazan’s testimony was not an uncoerced act. If he had not been moved by a subpoena backed by the threat of jail, he would never have said a word. He was harder on himself in A Life, and more ambivalent than Schickel, and finally had the humility to come to no conclusion. “What good deeds were stimulated by what I’d done? What villains exposed? How is the world better for what I did? It had just been a game of power and influence.” Schickel, by contrast, lets himself be drawn into elaborate special pleading. “Changing times,” he says, “quite legitimately beget changing friends, changing loyalties, changing principles.” A bizarre line of defense. What is the right number of changes of principle for one person in one lifetime?

On the Waterfront was shot the year after Kazan testified. Its hero is a man who gives evidence to a waterfront commission to expose the mob leadership of a corrupt union. Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay, was another friendly witness for HUAC, though less fulsome than Kazan in his professions of Americanism, and this combination of plot element and authorship was all that was needed for the left-wing reading of the movie. It was said to be a transparent self-justification by the director and the writer. Yet the hero of On the Waterfront is a witness of a very different kind, and the movie is based on facts about the Irish mafia, which Schulberg had studied closely after reading Malcolm Johnson’s articles in the New York Sun. The subject, in short, was an actual and present menace, not a past and speculative one. The film presented an honest union as the greatest blessing of democracy–hardly the position of Joe McCarthy or HUAC. The social sentiments of On the Waterfront include nothing that might not have come from the same writer and the same director several years earlier.

This was a movie in which everything came together: script, photography, setting, actors, music. Marlon Brando did something with the character of Terry Malloy–by his voice and gesture, the walk, the timing of certain reactions–that took it beyond the lines laid down in the screenplay. What did Kazan do? He created a presence in which such things could happen. Sometimes he gave hints, sometimes more than hints. His genius was to know what he had when he had it. Another collaboration with Schulberg followed three years later: A Face in the Crowd was a movie just as gripping and similar in its subject matter, a portrait of a demagogue partly modeled on Will Rogers. These two films share a perception that society itself has the power to make people better or worse than they would otherwise be. The hero of A Face in the Crowd, played by Andy Griffith in an all-out performance, is a singer and con man but mostly a drunkard with a big voice, until success on television turns him into something worse. The instrument of the change is an intelligent journalist, Marcia, played by Patricia Neal, who promotes him with the best of intentions. Kazan said in a note to himself on A Face in the Crowd: “This will be a tragedy and a deep one IF you fall in love with him just as Marcia does and just as the public does.” To attain a tragic dignity would have required a scene or two evoking a tenderness toward the hero that is not evident in the script. Yet A Face in the Crowd is a satire that remains deeply troubling. It has immediacy and drive, and an impressive knowledge of its central subject, the relation between a native and reckless demotic energy and the mass culture of democracy.

As a filmmaker, Kazan lacks fluidity, surprise and any semblance of grace in the handling of groups or crowds, or the natural movement of people into and out of groups. Think of a Kazan moment that has more than two actors, and you are seeing a table of men at cards, a line of men watching a fistfight, a mass of men joining one by one to swell a protest: static action and reaction, in which every detail has been predigested. He asked John Ford once how he arrived at his camera setups, and Ford said that he got up early and mapped everything out before the actors came. The point was to let the images tell the story as they did in silent films. Kazan did not think he could do that. With him, the actors and their relationships and the words and design of the script were always primary.

The mass-action scene in Viva Zapata! shows the peasants adding their silent numbers to the police guard while the latter escort the hero to prison, so that the arrest becomes a protest march and a vigil. An effective scene that could have been magnificent. But Kazan shot it in glades and country paths shaded by trees–picturesque, but without open space to catch the moment when the crowd begins to know itself. The camera never seems far enough back, the wide-angle shots are not very wide, there is no time for the lungs of the emotion to fill. It is just the sort of thing that Ford had at his fingertips in Fort Apache, or Young Mr. Lincoln, or almost anywhere. Again, consider from the same movie the approach of Joseph Wiseman, the dialectician of revolution, toward the high rock on which are seated the two-man army of Zapata–and place it alongside a famous scene from Lawrence of Arabia, the menace of Sherif Ali as he draws closer to Lawrence and the boy who is taking water from his well. These are moments of similar import since they both introduce significant minor characters, men who know the lie of the land and will come to assist the heroes. When Eric Bentley said that Kazan was “a showman,” he meant a showman in the theater. David Lean was a cinematic showman, and he built up the elements of the encounter from a shimmer on the horizon. Kazan, a theatrical talent with outsize props, stages a series of importunate shouts back and forth. The majesty of the brutal landscape goes for nothing.

The unshakable quality of Kazan’s best work is his skill in working up scenes of intense dialogue. Almost always, they involve two or three people or just one with an implied audience. He knew how to create such scenes better than any American of his time–perhaps of any time. The scenes are lit by a promise of recognition, and their development is often marked by simple counter-shots. So one sees the change on Brando’s face when Eva Marie Saint tells him pityingly that she knows he would help if he could. Kazan sometimes achieved a more sustained effect, as with Carroll Baker’s look of wonder and shyness and testing-the-air, through the long central scene in Baby Doll when she flirts with Eli Wallach and lets him pursue her without exactly knowing why–a scene that almost tells the natural history of a person through continuous close-ups. The same concentration shows in the last forty minutes of Splendor in the Grass, with Natalie Wood’s farewell to her psychiatrist, the reunion with her parents and the cautious visit to her old boyfriend. Kazan was right to bet on the young Wood, already a veteran but one who had never risked so much.

Looking back at Kazan’s career, one is struck by how often he chose on a hunch the actors he wanted for major parts. In some cases, those actors were barely known. Carroll Baker is an example, and so is Andy Griffith. Burl Ives seemed already living in the skin of Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, so Kazan went ahead and cast him. James Dunn as the father in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a comparable gamble that paid off. For that matter, the same description fit Brando when he showed up in Provincetown three days late to read for the part of Stanley Kowalski. Brando endeared himself to Williams and Kazan by fixing some household appliances, and turned both men into believers long before the world knew why. The insecurity of actors was meat and drink to Kazan if it helped the production. So was their antagonism. He did nothing to soften the mutual hatred of James Dean and Raymond Massey on the set of East of Eden, so nicely in keeping with their parts; in a smaller way, he encouraged a rivalry under the friendship of Brando and Anthony Quinn in the making of Viva Zapata!

Kazan was a believer, after all, in talent more than status, and was therefore unconventional under the clothing of ambition and his hunger for fame. He could see an original a long way off, and he never resisted the appeal. This generosity forms a counterpoint to the vanity, treachery, infidelity and self-regard for which the author of A Life held himself answerable. (His novel The Arrangement, a 1967 bestseller, was also a confession of the author’s chagrin at the triumph of craft and cunning in the management of his life.) He liked to speak his mind, and his character mixed in equal parts exuberance and wary calculation. He did not mind being denounced, if the conditions were right, as they were when Cardinal Spellman hurled abuse at Baby Doll (an obscenity and a disgrace to the honor of our boys overseas) from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In this connection, there is real force in a question that Schickel asks near the end of his book. Did Kazan in the 1950s pick up a tremor of the discontents to come?

“They do it for their children’s good,” he wrote in his director’s notes on the manipulative parents in Splendor in the Grass.

They do it with a sense of not being appreciated and understood. They do it also with a sense of self-righteousness…. They do it to SAVE their children…. They are the great American middle class that is going down…. They are the killers…. AND YOU’D NEVER KNOW IT TO LOOK AT THEM.

In his work of the 1950s, he caught intimations of a half-expressed anger elsewhere that resembled his own; there was a wildness in Splendor in the Grass and East of Eden that had nothing to do with their style or message. Both became cult films, to a degree that surprised their maker, because they had a different resonance for the youth in the audience. But in the end Kazan was faithful to an earlier ideal. “I like people that work,” he told Schickel in a late interview. “And I don’t like the spoiled and I think almost everybody in the upper middle class–excuse me–is spoiled. I think our whole society is spoiled, so there you are. Make of it what you will. Maybe some is a hangover from the Communists–but I thought they were spoiled, too.” One comes away from this life reflecting that its hero, gifted as he was, “indifferent, generous, cheap” and marred by compromise, was never destined to become one of the spoiled.

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