“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.