ELIA KAZAN: A Life by Elia Kazan
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The timing seems fateful. The first half of the season brought Arthur Miller's huge, evocative memoir Timebends--and the second half brings this even longer (864 pp.) autobiography of Miller's longtime colleague, friend, and foe: an edgy, earthy outpouring of nostalgia, bitterness, guilt, defiance, and feverish self-justification. Even show-business buffs, who certainly recall the peaks of Kazan's directing career (Death of a Salesman and Streetcar Named Desire on B'way, On the Waterfront in Hollywood), may be awed and fascinated by the length and breadth of his remarkable working life. Son of an immigrant Greek rug-merchant, growing up with an ""outsider"" complex in New Rochelle, N.Y., Kazan defied his father by going to Williams instead of into the family business. But it wasn't till drifting into Yale Drama School and a summer with the Group Theatre (1932) that ""I had a passion at last."" Playing bit parts, stage-managing for lovable Harold Clurman and cold Lee Strasberg, trying Hollywood with Clifford Odets, Kazan was a reliable actor-director by 1940--and became a Wunderkind on B'way with The Skin of Our Teeth (after weeks of power-games with Tallulah Bankhead). A decade of triumphs followed: star vehicles for Helen Hayes, Mary Martin, Deborah Kerr (all of whom get due credit); the landmark collaborations with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Meanwhile, there were movie hits--A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gentleman's Agreement--but not till the 1950's did Kazan force himself to become a real, frame-by-frame filmmaker. And after his 1960's ordeal with the doomed theater company at Lincoln Center came a long-simmering career-switch: to the writing of highly personal fiction (The Arrangement, etc.). Despite all these exuberantly detailed achievements, however, the most vivid (if ultimately enervating) sequences here involve Kazan's wildly ambivalent self-portrait as husband, lover, and friend. Obsessively attracted to ""other men's women,"" he was always unfaithful to beloved wife #1 Molly--with actress Constance Dowling (a stormy long-term affair), Marilyn Monroe (a brief, cozy fling), and countless others. He blamed himself for Molly's premature death, married mistress Barbara Loden (already mother of his child), cheated on her, then watched her die (the harrowing final section here) of cancer at 48. But, along with the guilt: ""My 'womanizing' saved my life. It kept the juices pumping."" Similarly, about ""naming names"" to the HUAC, Kazan is anguished, eager to explain (not very persuasively), yet fiercely unapologetic: with On the Waterfront, ""I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go and fuck themselves."" Far from likable, then, and annoyingly repetitious--but Kazan's joyfully proclaimed arrogance and anger give these richly populated reminiscences a rare level of vulgar energy and psychological complexity.

Pub Date: May 5th, 1988
Publisher: Knopf