Magazine | May 5, 2014, Issue


The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan, edited by Albert J. Devlin with Marlene J. Devlin (Knopf, 672 pp., $40)

Helen Hunt wasn’t smiling. Neither was Lynn Redgrave, or Steven Spielberg. Well, at least they were clapping — others didn’t even go that far. On March 21, 1999, Elia Kazan was given an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards, but when the 89-year-old film director arrived onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Hollywood’s crème de la crème seemed less than thrilled to see him. Nick Nolte had his hands ostentatiously wrapped around his elbows, while Ed Harris rested his hands in his lap. But, as I mentioned, even many of those who gave Kazan applause did so mournfully, as though saluting the man who made Gentleman’s Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire, and On the Waterfront was a chore rather than a privilege.

Of course, the cause of Kazan’s less-than-warm reception that night was his 1952 testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), in which he divulged the names of Communists with whom he had once worked. Yet that didn’t fully explain the thinking of the aforementioned unhappy campers, few of whom could have remembered Kazan’s decades-old wickedness. After all, in 1952, when Kazan was “naming names,” Nick Nolte was eleven, Ed Harris was two, and Helen Hunt — who looked as though she had lost her best friend as she meekly brought her hands together — had not yet been born. It would be hard to understand their long faces except for the fact that their industry had made a sport of kicking around Elia Kazan for so long that it had become something of a rite of passage, and they were manifesting an L.A. variant of Jung’s collective unconscious.

Not that any of this bothered the man there to get an Oscar. Looking quite placid, surrounded by introducers Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro as well as his third and final wife (who escorted him), Kazan acknowledged the Academy for its courage and generosity, spared the audience a litany of unnecessary thank-you’s, and concluded by saying, “I think I can just slip away.”

In the letters gathered in this wonderful, addictively readable new collection, Kazan is often tempestuous and moody, but he displays a similar tone of tranquil confidence when it comes to what happened with HUAC. In the spring of 1952, he wrote an admiring letter to philosopher Sidney Hook, praising his anti-Communist pamphlet “Heresy, Yes — Conspiracy, No!” and going on to bemoan the company he had once kept. “The phrase ‘ritualistic liberal’ was illuminating,” he wrote. “I didn’t realize until I began looking around me with this phrase in mind how hidebound and bigoted and self-blindfolded are a great mass of New York’s intellectual set.” Kazan always balked at the oft-repeated suggestion that he testified because of career expediency, and references in private correspondence to anti-Communist sages like Hook and Whittaker Chambers provide evidence for his sincerity.

Also in 1952, in a letter to his first wife, Molly, Kazan wrote that Chambers’s book Witness “had a tremendous effect upon me” and that the Alger Hiss described by Chambers “sounds like a terrible liar. And a smoothie.” Time did not fundamentally change Kazan’s certitude that his decision was right. In 1984, he wrote to his daughter Katharine about his state of mind. “I’m in excellent health and have no conscience problems,” he said. “I think people who supported the USSR after the Stalin Hitler pact, after Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin, they, not I, should have bad consciences.”

In his deeply revealing, elegantly written autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life (1988), Kazan suggested that his testimony, and the icy manner in which he was received by some colleagues, dominated his thoughts for years. “Here I am, 35 years later, still worrying over it,” he wrote, adding that any guilt or embarrassment subsided within a year of his testimony. More surprisingly, perhaps, the experience altered the form and substance of his films. In a passage from A Life quoted by the present volume’s editors, Albert J. Devlin and Marlene J. Devlin, Kazan claimed that “the only genuinely good and original films I’ve made, I made after my testimony.” Kazan also wrote that “the thing was to be hardy, no matter what the ‘weather,’ not to expect the comforts of position, the constant flattery of praise or the false assurances of comradeship” — as though testifying liberated him, in his films, to challenge a multitude of left-wing premises.

In Wild River — his brilliant, underappreciated 1960 movie about the human toll of the Tennessee Valley Authority — Kazan makes a hero (or is it an antihero?) out of a figure straight from his days as an eager New Dealer: Chuck Glover (played by Montgomery Clift), an official from the TVA who must prevail upon an elderly, implacable Tennessean (Jo Van Fleet) and her kinfolk to sell their island, which is standing athwart a dam (and history, too). “He comes down absolutely sure of every conviction (you might say: prejudice),” Kazan wrote screenwriter Paul Osborn as the project was being prepared. “He meets up against some people who are from a certain point of view (his) crazy. And wrong. And worthless.” But, Kazan added, the character finds that he is fond of the people he was sent to boot out: “You might oversimplify the story thus: A man is assigned to kill someone. He falls in love with them. And then cant [sic] kill them. Instead he joins them.”

#page#Before that happens, though, the film paints a devastating portrait of the guilelessness of government workers certain that they have the public’s interests at heart. Unpersuaded by a fellow TVA employee (played, in a trenchant cameo, by Kazan’s second wife, Barbara Loden) that the Van Fleet character “won’t budge an inch,” Chuck lays on the condescension thick. “We often underestimate the intelligence of people,” he says understandingly. “We can talk to them and they’ll listen.” But “they” don’t. Then, as now, some people don’t want what their betters have to offer them. As Kazan told Osborn, “The old lady has what she wants. She knows what she wants concretely.”

After Wild River, Kazan had a huge hit with Splendor in the Grass, which at first blush seems altogether less political (and shallower) than its immediate predecessor. Yet Kazan wrote in A Life that the film’s apparently tragic ending — in which Natalie Wood is briefly reunited with her former inamorato Warren Beatty, who is toiling on a chicken farm with a trashy bride and a rugrat underfoot — as expressing a moral of sorts: “That you have to accept limited happiness, because all happiness is limited, and that to expect perfection is the most neurotic thing of all; you must live with the sadness as well as with the joy.” This is a profoundly conservative sentiment — that there is more to life than romantic flights of fancy.

In this collection, an apparently never-mailed letter to Kazan’s son Chris, in which the young man is taken to task for being rude to his mother (“She takes the trouble to call you about your painting and you sound — so she tells me — as though you resented her calling you. What the hell! Common courtesy man”) also casts a fresh light on Splendor’s many instances of parents’ locking horns with their mutinous offspring. Recall the scene in the film in which the Beatty character exhorts his sister (a terrific Loden, again) to “be decent” to their doddering mother.

One of the book’s abiding pleasures is tracking the ongoing correspondence between Kazan and his friend and collaborator Tennessee Williams. We feel like witnesses to history when reading Kazan’s condolences to Williams upon the death of his mother, whom Kazan says Williams “immortalized” — a reference, the Devlins explain in one of the helpful editorial annotations they include after each letter, to the character of Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.

Kazan is bursting with advice and, sometimes, admonishment for his pen pals, telling off cinematographer Haskell Wexler, with whom he worked rancorously on America, America (“You know I think you’re a good cameraman. But under these circumstances I simply can’t take you. I resent you and I don’t want to see you”); scolding Warren Beatty for his behavior on another director’s set (“I really do like you, and it disheartens me when I hear from the underground that you are giving everybody a bad time in Maryland”); offering Edward Albee both praise for, and a list of things that “troubled” him about, his play The Death of Bessie Smith (“It’s like a circle of hell, your script”); and even chiding Williams for wanting to cast star actors in a particular play (“Imagine Eugene O’Neill running after Faye Dunaway?”).

As the above suggests, the Kazan who comes through here is exceedingly sharp-witted — a must for any book of letters expected to hold our interest. In 1967, he repeats a rumor to James Baldwin about Marlon Brando’s not being able to remember his lines (“I wonder what he does all day? Where he moves and why? I’m worried about him”), while in 1976, during the shooting of his final, unfairly neglected film, The Last Tycoon, he grouses to producer Sam Spiegel about the production’s wasteful largesse (“Here we are, filming a tiny scene in a car between two people, just a small intimate talk and a little psychological play between the eyes perhaps, and we had one of the largest caravans of equipment since World War II”). There is also great tenderness, as when, anguishing over losing Barbara Loden to cancer, he confesses to director Joshua Logan his resentment at seeing people living their lives as Loden has been deprived of hers: “Frankly, I look at the other people walking the street, most of them, and I distrust life, its fairness.”

These letters contain too much else to summarize — I haven’t even touched on his correspondence with Clifford Odets, or his instructions to designer Jo Mielziner about the set for Death of a Salesman, or the on-location drama of making America, America in Turkey — but the most memorable of them show us someone content with being an outlier, and with the choices that rendered him one.

– Mr. Tonguette’s criticism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is writing a book on Peter Bogdanovich.

Peter Tonguette — Mr. Tonguette is the editor of Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.

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