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Book Review: Elia Kazan, A Biography

Harper Collins

The Century's Most Polarizing Auteur
Elia Kazan, by Richard Schickel

(Harper Collins)
In early 1999, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors gathered to decide to whom it would bestow a Lifetime Achievement Award that March at the annual Academy Awards ceremony. Little did they know that their unanimous decision to honor Elia Kazan would be one of the most controversial Oscars ever awarded. Kazan, who had already won two statuettes for his work on "Gentleman's Agreement" and "On the Waterfront," also earned the ire of many in Hollywood for his testimony as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in the 1950s. Did he deserve this very public award?

Time critic Richard Schickel, a late-in-life friend of Kazan's, does not directly concern himself with this rather petty question, but uses his book, "Elia Kazan: A Biography," to make the case that Kazan, regardless of what you think about his actions, was one of the principal architects of the natural, modern style of acting that we now take for granted, and a gifted director whose films and stage productions are part of the American cultural fabric.
Schickel's biography of Kazan is not so much about the man's personal life, though he does illustrate how the personal affects the professional. The book is mostly about Kazan's career, and Schickel is upfront about this being a "critical biography," meaning he offers thoughtful opinions of Kazan's work on multiple occasions.

Kazan's story begins in the 1930s, with the young man as a member of the Group Theatre, a left-leaning troupe in New York City. Rubbing shoulders and egos with Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, and other accomplished playwrights and actors, Kazan was also a member of the Communist Party at the time, and had a notable part in Odets' strike play "Waiting for Lefty" as a planted audience member who yelled out "STRIKE!" at a crucial moment, invigorating both the actors and the crowd. But professional as much as philosophical differences led to Kazan's bolting the Group Theatre, and he soon found himself involved with the nascent Actors Studio, Hollywood, and his great theatrical collaborators, Arthur Miller ("Death of a Salesman") and Tennessee Williams ("A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof").
Of course, the 200-pound gorilla in the room is Kazan's testimony before HUAC, and one of the chapters in the book is titled "Testimonies." Schickel says Kazan's testimony "Should not have been, as it has become, the defining (and in the eyes of many, the indefensible) event of his life." The author posits that it was not just pressure from 20th Century Fox president Spyros Skouras that led Kazan to name names, or pressure from Fox producer Darryl Zanuck, or even a self-serving desire to save his career in Hollywood. It was all of these things and more, namely something that is not often brought up when one examines the issue: Kazan thought he did the right thing. Schickel says, "I find it difficult to condemn Kazan, or anyone else who named names, for failing to protect people with whom they had no present contact and from whose ideological path they had long since diverged." Schickel contends Kazan, while remaining a liberal, nevertheless "shared a distaste for the anti-Americanism of Communist opinion," and that Kazan truly believed the party was then involved in espionage. And in his prologue to the book, Schickel also makes the point that many of the radical left behaved quite illiberally when they did not immediately condemn or acknowledge Josef Stalin's crimes against humanity. Schickel finally notes that Kazan's most egregious mistake may not be the testimony itself, but his decision (influenced by his wife, Molly) to take out a grandiose advertisement in the New York Times explaining his actions.

And so it is for the HUAC testimony that Kazan is known, as much as for his undeniably great films, all of which are delved into in great detail in "Elia Kazan: A Biography." Schickel's analysis of, and the stories behind the production of such films as "On the Waterfront," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Splendor in the Grass," "Baby Doll," and others is illuminating.
Kazan's final hurrah, his honorary Oscar, brought howls of protest from some in Hollywood, and few truly thoughtful analyses of Kazan. And so, in this era of black and white, me vs. you, red states and blue states, it's refreshing to read Schickel's interpretation of Kazan's actions in the 1950s. Too often, we forget those delicate shades of gray that color everything, even the Red Scare.