Elia Kazan Was a Brilliant, Needy Pen Pal

In letters to the likes of Marlon Brando and Tennessee Williams, the director of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire was shrewd about just about everything but himself.


Ah, artists! They’re not all self-absorbed, self-justifying, passionate geniuses, but if you’re curious about that model you can’t do better than Elia Kazan, the theater and film director and, to many, a socio-political pariah. “I didn’t fall from any pedestal except the one you raised for me,” Kazan complains in a letter to his wife, Molly, (the first of three) early in their 31-year marriage. He cheated relentlessly, they stayed married until she died, and to the end he acts as if he’s the victim.

He bluntly tells Tennessee Williams, then working on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, "Brick is written wrong in most of Act Three.” And after naming already-known names before the Communist-hunting House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1952, he insists to Molly, “I’m proud of what I’ve done.”

Jolting though those lines from his Selected Letters may be, the book is a bit disappointing, mostly because it can’t begin to compete with Kazan’s massive, fascinating autobiography, A Life. Published in 1988, when he was 79 (he lived on to 94), the autobiography reveals a man who had astonishing clarity as a director, and who lived and apparently thrived on perpetual emotional chaos.

The Letters simply offer more evidence, as well as a reminder of his vital importance. It can be difficult, more than 50 years after the height of Kazan’s fame, to register how his production of Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire electrified the theater world, how his films On the Waterfront and East of Eden brought a radical new naturalism to the screen (artists as different as Martin Scorsese and Nicolas Cage have cited the impact Kazan’s movies had on them), and how his testimony outraged so many during the red-baiting years.

Examining Kazan’s brilliance is a lot more interesting than returning to the creaky question that has haunted him since HUAC: Can you separate the artist from his moral choices? Yet Kazan himself realized that his testimony would cast a shadow he could never entirely escape. Old friends crossed the street to avoid him. One of his finest artistic collaborators, Arthur Miller, temporarily broke with him. When he received an honorary Oscar in 1999, with Scorsese and Robert De Niro at his side, some in the audience applauded, while others sat with their arms conspicuously folded.

But the HUAC episode also brought out his most defiant self. “The only genuinely good and original films I’ve made, I made after my testimony,” he wrote in A Life. He was right. Part of that was simply a coincidence of timing. On the Waterfront, with Marlon Brando as a failed boxer (the famous “coulda been a contender”) who informs on mob bosses, was Kazan’s 10th film—by then he had learned a lot about the difference between stage and screen. But the film also displays a visceral freedom missing from his earlier work, as if he no longer cares what the world thinks. In a draft of a letter to Brando (probably never sent), he admits that the Waterfront story of “a human in torment and in danger” undeniably parallels his HUAC experience. But in another letter we hear the director who knows how to evoke that torment from his actor and put it on screen. “I hope to be photographing the kid’s insides as much as exterior events,” he tells Brando about his character, Terry Malloy. Colleagues like Brando and Williams and Miller often fought back, but more often they took Kazan’s advice.

His artistic thoughtfulness and precision are also evident in the 2009 collection Kazan on Directing. What the Letters add is his desperate need to be understood. He explains and defends himself over and over, professionally and personally, and his childish disbelief when others don’t see things his way comes close to being a tantrum. Well into his marriage to Molly, looking back on his affair with Marilyn Monroe, he says, “I’m ashamed I hurt you ever. On the other hand I resent being made to feel guilty and low and less.” Astute as a director, he never seemed to grasp that being defensive didn’t do him much good personally.

As in any volume of letters, you see the writer tailoring his persona to suit the reader and the purpose. But a few surprising glimmers seem to come from his soul. Apart from Molly, he is most candid with Williams, allowing himself to show a weaker side. After HUAC and Waterfront, he writes of his exhaustion and doubts. “I found myself repeating myself in EAST OF E,” he says. Williams was far more emotionally fragile than Kazan would ever be; he was a sympathetic, non-judgmental ear.

The Letters end in 1988, but the book still runs to 600 pages that race through Kazan’s marriages and films, and eventually novels. It would have been about a third shorter without editor Albert Devlin’s overdone explanatory notes. It helps to know that Julie Harris was 28 when Kazan worried about her playing the ingenue in East of Eden; we don’t need a list of her Tony awards.

Like an intermittently fascinating movie, the Selected Letters leaves you wondering what intriguing scenes might have been jettisoned in the editing. But this book reinforces the image created in A Life—Kazan at his prickliest. He was just that kind of artist.