Elia Kazan: A Biography
by Richard Schickel
HarperCollins, 2005. $29.95
America has produced some great screen directors like: John Huston ("The Maltese Falcon"); Michael Curtiz ("Casablanca"); Orson Welles ("Citizen Kane"); Charles Chaplin ("City Lights"); Billy Wilder ("Double Indemnity"); John Ford ("The Grapes of Wrath"); Steven Spielberg ("E.T."). Elia Kazan must be included in this august group, if only for his 1954 production of "On the Waterfront" which won eight Oscars.
That film starred a 30-year-old Marlon Brando, remembered for his earlier Broadway portrayal as the loutish Stanley in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire."
But Kazan, who died two years ago at the age of 94, in addition to weighty screen credits, was also a great theatrical director, winning three Tony awards for staging "Death of a Salesman" and "All My Sons" by Arthur Miller and "JB" by Archibald MacLeish. Between 1943 and 1953, he directed 14 plays, nine of which became long-running hits, and 10 Hollywood films.
Richard Schickel, Time movie critic, film historian and biographer of Brando, Clint Eastwood and D. W. Griffith, is a daring writer, especially because his book must compete with Kazan's own 1988 memoir "A Life," which Janet Maslin said "remains arguably the best show-business memoir ever written." Even so, Schickel has done a superb job of depicting an era in the American theater and brilliantly narrating the life of the artist who dominated that era.
The most important political event in Kazan's life — for himself, his friends and the American public — is that he named names. When asked by a congressional committee to disclose the members of his cell during a short-lived enrollment in the Communist Party, he obliged.
For this act, he was pilloried by America's liberal and fellow-traveling bien pensants. Of course, as Schickel points out, the same bien pensants would have pilloried Kazan if, had he been a member of the Nazi Bund, he had refused to name names.
There are also some very funny anecdotes, especially involving the domineering, unchaste Tallulah Bankhead. After a shouting battle full of invective and unprintable language with Kazan during a rehearsal, she rushed to his dressing room, shed her blouse and skirt (she wore no underwear) and headed for his bed which, to her horror, "was occupied by the young actress Kazan had been eyeing." Some people have all the fun.
If you have any interest in learning how Broadway worked in the Kazan era, this is the book for you.
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