‘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.

Kazan’s people were an oppressed minority – Greeks in Anatolia – who decided to make a break for the New World in the years before the Great War. Anatolians were famous for anticipating earthquakes of one sort or another. Elia was four when his father brought his rug-selling expertise to New York. This was a father who never forgave his son for abandoning the business. He never forgave his wife, either, for secretly arranging Elia’s application to Williams College. When Athena Kazan told her husband George of Elia’s acceptance, he knocked her to the floor. They slept in separate rooms from then on.

Kazan confesses that he felt an outsider from childhood, and encourages us to read his attachment to any group that would have him – and particularly, of course, the Group Theatre – in the light of this longing for acceptance. Hand in hand with that went its reverse: a defiant and subversive independence in the face of any rejection, real or imagined. The trait was marked as much in the sexual sphere as in the political. An attack of mumps at 14 left him with one testicle, and though we scoff at amateur psychology, or feel tempted to agree with his second wife, the actress Barbara I oden, when she read his autobiographical novel The Arrangement – ‘why do you have to be so intimate?’ – he assures us that it ‘affected his whole life’. The fear of sexual inadequacy and social unacccptability drove him to relentless philandering, only recently given up. ‘I exhausted myself, the best of myself. I soured my life.’ But he also esteems and relishes the affairs, and writes at length, indiscreetly, but usually tenderly, of his partners, including Marilyn Monroe, whom he bequeathed to Arthur Miller.

His marriage to Molly Day Thatcher, daughter of a Wall Street lawyer, great-granddaughter of the President of Yale, was the beginning of acceptance. His mother later said: ‘Molly brought us into America.’ But he never grew out of the habit of wanting other men’s girls, or other people’s privileges. The root of his emotional attachment to the Communist Party, he admits, was laid at college, where he could enviously observe ‘the rewards of the system’ of which he remained on the outskirts. ‘What I wanted was not equality. I wanted the full rewards.’ It comes as no surprise, nor does he pretend it will, that when he explains the naming of the names it is not in a spirit of feeble self-justification, but in terms of an apostasy that has been carefully charted throughout the book.

It could have been no such thing to his former friends and partners in the Group, or the collective Theatre in Action, or even the later Actors’ Studio. He is candid enough to acknowledge the degree of duplicity with which he concealed his gradual disillusionment with the Left. Not only did he dislike collective decision-making, he began to discover in himself an indifference, amounting occasionally to distaste and hostility, when the theory of democracy threatened to submerge the practice of individualism, especially when the individual was good old ‘Gadge’ Kazan. His nickname, short for Gadget, indicated some useful, practical, handy tool, and he began increasingly to resent it.

It was easier now to express that resentment in the films, particularly in On the Waterfront (1954). ‘When Brando, at the end, yells at Lee Cobb, the mob boss, “I’m glad what I done you hear me? – glad what I done!” that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.’ Kazan and Schulberg befriended the ‘stoolie’ docker Tony Mike de Vicenzo and Kazan baldly asserts that he saw Tony Mike’s story ‘as my own’. He makes no distinction between de Vicenzo’s exposure of current corruption and his own betrayal of the names of passionately close companions in the Party almost twenty years earlier.

With Wild River (1960), a story of plans for a Tennessee Valley dam being thwarted by an obstinate old woman clinging to her property, we see split sympathies achieving a fine emotional balance. Had Kazan made the film in the Thirties, he would have been behind FDR New Deal progress and against the self-indulgent obscurantism of the old lady. Now, even the TVA man, in the appealing person of Montgomery Cift, falls victim, not only to the old lady’s granddaughter (Lee Remick), but to the ‘rugged individualism’ of grandma’s stand. Here Kazan’s political sympathies and the casting and playing make for a pleasing and undogmatic mix.

He must always have been conscious of being controlled or manipulated by powers and concerns beyond the exclusively artistic. It is interesting to see which gloved fist he most resents. Preparing Viva Zapata, he visits Mexico with Steinbeck. Their script is rejected by government spokemen, who want ‘corrections’ to bring it more in line with the official revolutionary view of Zapata. Steinbeck points out to Kazan that studio people are doing the same back in California, whispering in Zanuck’s ear. Kazan says: fine, they only have to answer to Zanuck. Is that better? asks Steinbeck. “ ‘I prefer it,” I said, “for the simple reason that Darryl is geared to company profits.” ’ Arthur Miller abandoned a dock-front story called ‘The Hook’ when he and Kazan were introduced by Harry Cohn, the boss of Columbia, to the gently encouraging head of IATSE – the all-powerful International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees – who said everything would be just fine if they could insert an unequivocal anti-Red speech somewhere. The Catholic Legion of Decency asked for – and got, behind Kazan’s back – cuts in A Streetcar Named Desire to ensure that the audience would ‘believe that Stella and Stanley will never again be happy together.’ This was directly contrary to Tennessee Williams’s intention. Kazan was told by Jack Warner and others not to rock the boat. The Church could kill Jack’s business.

A larger, but more honest ‘betrayal’ had already occurred with the stage version, and Kazan is at his best in describing it. Harold Clurman, co-founder, with Lee Strasberg, of the Group Theatre, took over the show when it went on the road. He had objected that Kazan’s sympathy for Stanley had diminished his’ ‘vileness’, thus upsetting the balance. This he aimed to restore, by stressing the brutality with which Blanche is crushed, so illustrating how aspiration, sensitivity, departure from the norm are battered, bruised and disgraced in our world today’ (Clurman’s words). Kazan’s response to this is instructive: it was no part of Tennessee’s aim to make Stanley vile – the invited identification of Blanche with that aspiring, sensitive and bruised group of capitalism’s victims, the Group Theatre, was so much ‘sentimental malarkey’. Kazan fiercely defended Tennessee’s ambivalences, and most audiences have found that it is Brando’s unsettling tenderness – with Stella, with Charlie in Waterfront – which lends complexity and humanity to what might otherwise have become bald ideological struggles.

In his search for these true moments, and in his candour when he speaks of his failure to find them (or worse, his weakness in wanting to disguise them, once found), Kazan is admirably honest, and generous in his praise. ‘What other actor, when his brother draws a pistol to force him to do something shameful, would put his hand on the gun and push it away with the gentleness of a caress? Who else could read “Oh, Charlie!” in a tone of reproach that is so loving and so melancholy and suggests that terrific depth of pain? I didn’t direct that; Marlon showed me, as he often did, how the scene should be performed.’ When Kazan is rebuked, as he often is, for ‘treachery’, ‘dishonesty’ and ‘arrogance’, such passages, and there are many of them, might be taken into consideration.

His happiest moments, professionally, have been spent at the hub of a crew in the throes of film-making, when despite everything he says about his own élitism, solidarity takes over. In a snowy and sleet-swept alley in Hoboken towards one in the morning, a rigger on Waterfront fell off a ladder and broke his leg. In the resulting pause producer Sam Spiegel, an infrequent visitor to the set, chose to arrive in the limo, fresh from the Stork Club, a girl on his arm and a pair of $125 alligator shoes on his feet (so Kazan’s assistant Charlie Maguire remembers it). Spiegel began to harangue the crew for incompetence and laziness. A veteran (Jewish) prop-man on the crew, Eddie Barr, spoke up:

‘You Jew cocksucker! If it wasn’t for Charlie Maguire and that little guy outside’ – me – ‘we’d all be home. Nobody wants to be out here tonight. This is blood money tonight. We don’t need this kind of money. Now you better get your ass out of here if you want us to make this picture.’

The ‘little guy outside’ was Kazan.

Years later, stunned by the poverty in Bombay, Kazan reflects how far ‘money, ambition and rivalry had deprived me of brotherliness,’ and especially, of the core of concern, as distinct from envy, which had driven him as a young man to join the Communist Party. This ‘brotherliness’ is not something he expects to rekindle. With his departure, the misery will remain, while he is ‘safe, well-fed and indiffrent’. A letter from the past provokes him to more metaphysical conclusions. In December 1963 Molly died. A former party colleague and friend, Tony Kraber, whom Kazan had denounced, and who in turn had, inaccurately, accused Kazan of selling-out for a half-million dollar contract, wrote him a letter of condolence so touching that, re-reading it now, as he writes the chapter on Molly’s death, he finds himself thrown, one night, into an extraordinary dream.

He is in Tony’s apartment, and they are at case with one another. Tony’s wife greets him cheerfully and goes out. A frail boy appears their son, he supposes. Kazan wants to apologise to Tony for everything. ‘It’s not necessary,’ says Tony, guessing his thought. In the dream, Kazan warms to his generosity.

He was human and I’d hurt him. I felt that no political cause was worth hurting any other human for. What good deeds were stimulated by what I’d done? What villains exposed? How is the world better for what I did?

He goes on to an honest, but even more question-begging conclusion: ‘The simple fact was that I wasn’t political – not then, not now. I only wished that I could have been as generous and as decent as Tony had been with me.’

The simple fact, surely, is that at the age of 78 Kazan still makes a false distinction between ‘polities’ and ‘humanity’, as if they were mutually exclusive, as if one was always right, and the other always wrong, as if Tony, when he wrote that his heart went out to Elia in his loss, demonstrated some higher truth beyond ‘polities’, and as if Kazan, touched by that kindness, felt that it invalidated everything – every principle, every belief, every ‘betrayal’, however painfully arrived at – by which he had led his life.

He is both too hard and not hard enough on himself. He is generous and decent, as he unconsciously reveals on every page. He is also sentimental, rhetorical and devious, which he only occasionally spots in himself. He is coldly hostile only to two people: Tallulah Bank-head for her relentless self-promotion and for causing such pain to colleagues; and Lillian Hellman for her sentimental fellow-travelling, masking an icy artistic and social snobbery. His treatment of Lee Strasberg, once an adored mentor, then an implacable enemy, is the book’s most absorbing thread. Impossible to summarise, quixotically elaborate and wayward in its development, by turns honest and devious, this record of the relationship between a guarded, humourless, self-regarding guru of genius, who prescribed The Way, The Truth and The Light, and a quicksilver Anatolian who believed that there was no one Method, encapsulates much of the history of American stage and screen.

Since the disaster of The Last Tycoon (1976), which Kazan sleepwalked through heroically in the company of a dying mother, a bitterly hostile wife and a raving producer (Spiegel again), he has turned to writing. Without any suggestion of queasy peace-making he confesses that he likes Sam; and that without Sam’s influence on the script, On the Waterfront would have been a failure. ‘Both Budd and I owe Sam a lot, and we know it.’ But after the 1976 film he never wanted to have anything further to do with the cinema. His novels have turned increasingly to his roots. Acts of Love (1978) enshrines a boorish, brutish, heroic father-figure, Costa, who falls in love with his emigrant son’s nubile American wife, and strangles her in the moment of possession. There is no mention of how many testicles the son had.