‘I’m glad what I done’

Gavin Millar

  • A Life by Elia Kazan
    Deutsch, 848 pp, £17.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 233 98292 2

Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth was Kazan’s first big Broadway hit as a director, in November 1942. Walking out of the theatre one night, he overheard a couple arguing about the play: ‘ “What’s it all about?” the man complained to his wife. “Why, George,” she said, “it’s about love and hate and passion and everything – ever since the world began.” “Well,” the man said, “there must be more to it than that.” ’

George was right. There was more to it than that. On the eve of the dress rehearsal the hitherto compliant Kazan turned on the unspeakable Tallulah Bankhead in front of the cast and crew and ‘at the top of my voice and in the crudest language I told her that I despised her, that I wasn’t going to stand for any more shit from her, and when she continued to exit, down the steps into the audience, I followed her to the lip of the stage and yelled after her all the way down the aisle until she disappeared at the back of the auditorium.’ He was rewarded with a full round of applause.

Bankhead had been taking the opportunity of Florence March’s major scene to stand down-stage and comb out her lustrous blond hair. Florence’s husband Fredric retaliated by gargling in the wings during Bankhead’s big number. He was waiting for her counterattack. It came soon enough. A few nights later, in the scene where they kiss, she thrust her tongue deep into his mouth. ‘What did you do?’ Kazan asked Freddie. ‘I bit it.’

Some weeks into the successful run Bank-head appeared to be trying to build bridges with her director. One night his bedroom door opened and in she came:

Wasting no time she dropped her short brown skirt. She never wore underpants. If this was her way of breaking the ice she’d gone clean through it. She made a dash for my bed but stopped cold when she saw there was someone in it with me – also a member of the cast, but from a more modest salary level.

The bedfellow was neither his much-loved wife Molly, from whom he was temporarily estranged, nor his adored mistress, the actress Constance Dowling (later to drive Cesare Pavese to suicide), with whom he was about to enjoy a passionate reconciliation.

His fame now resides in his turning ‘friendly’ witness to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, by naming colleagues who had formed a secret Communist Party cell in the Group Theatre in the Thirties. What is less often remembered is that, throughout the Forties, he was probably the first name in American theatre-directing, and throughout the Fifties, one of the first in the cinema.

He was a pioneer interpreter of and midwife to theatre work by Clifford Odets, Sam Behrman, Robert Ardrey, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Robert Anderson and William Inge. He did the same in the cinema with Williams, Robert Sherwood, Inge, Steinbeck and Schulberg. Though he modestly disclaims more than typecast competence on the boards, it should be remembered that he was a succès fou as Agate Keller in Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty – perhaps the Group Theatre’s finest hour – and even came to London as Eddie Fuseli in Odets’s Golden Boy in 1938. He acknowledges that Odets based the character on him: ‘a man with dreams who’d do anything to get what he wanted’ yet who had his easily hurt side. ‘He built Fuseli, his gangster, on this ambivalence and wrote it for me.’

What may be just as significant is a part he played at Yale Drama School, not mentioned in the book: Solyony in The Three Sisters. Some student director, or perhaps a shrewd tutor, saw a lot of Solyony in the 21-year-old Anatolian Greek immigrant: a withdrawn, sullen sensitivity, an acute but brooding observer, an outsider whose snide élitism would dissolve in an instant into puppyish enthusiasm and loyalty when his ‘real worth’ was, at last, acknowledged by his peers.

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