Kazan quests for self-expression

Elia Kazan: A Life, by Elia Kazan. Knopf: New York. 864 pp. $24.95. A filmmaker down to his bones, Elia Kazan likes to ``read'' photographs. His autobiography is chock-full of pictures, and he never tires of interpreting the facial expressions of people who have played important roles in his life. One face reflects a sly and aggressive personality; another shows innocence and vulnerability; and so on, as if human nature could be faultlessly divined from momentary tracings on photographic paper.

``For many years that was my profession,'' Kazan notes, explaining his facility with snapshots. He's referring to the decades he spent directing such respected movies as ``On the Waterfront'' and ``Splendor in the Grass,'' as well as historic theater productions like Arthur Miller's ``Death of a Salesman'' and Tennessee Williams's ``A Streetcar Named Desire.''

Life isn't a movie or a play, though, much less a still photograph. Kazan's new book is impressive in its candor and revealing in its anecdotes about Hollywood and Broadway life. Yet the author seems unaware that people are more complex than the fragmentary images captured by a camera or a stage tableau.

This goes for his self-analysis as well. He seems eager to confess and excuse the controversial turns his life has taken, but he takes less trouble to understand them. Indeed, he seems delighted with the opposites that bump up against each other in his nature: ``I am cowardly. I am brave. ... I am vain. I am humble. ... I am slippery. I am reliable...,'' he says in a listing of contradictory traits which takes up about three pages.

Kazan is never at a loss to explain these opposing characteristics. Some he ascribes to his background as an Anatolian Greek, a people with a history of Turkish domination. Others developed from his ``outsider'' status in various places - at Yale, at early meetings of the renowned Group Theatre, and even in his own family, where conflict with his father was a fact of daily life.

When other explanations fail, Kazan falls back on the tired argument that most people are just the same as he is, only they won't admit their failings. He's especially fond of this reasoning when he confronts (frequently and explicitly) the compulsive sexuality, endless marital infidelity, and self-serving mendacity that were a constant part of his life.

None of this means ``Elia Kazan: A Life'' is without significant value. Kazan's descriptions are vivid even when his analysis is superficial, and he was on the scene during many of this century's most noteworthy performing-arts events. He does a thorough job of chronicling the Group Theatre's effort to make political commitment a key ingredient of American theatrical life; he traces the history of institutions like the Actors Studio and the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater; he persuasively sums up the professional qualities of many Hollywood and Broadway personalities; and he skillfully sketches an enormous number of artistically important partnerships, rivalries, and feuds. His portraits of gifted underachievers like actor Marlon Brando and playwright Clifford Odets are as poignant as they are personal.

The centerpiece of the book, inevitably, is Kazan's appearance as a cooperative witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, an event that drew as much attention as the artistic feats that had made him a public figure. Regrettably, he does a poor job of recounting this. He's full of reminiscences about how anguished and uncertain he was at the time, but after decades to think it over, he is still unable to give a convincing description - much less a justification - of the motives that led him to forswear his leftist loyalties and testify against old friends.

Kazan's professional life has been a quest for self-expression. His favorite achievements are the movies he nurtured from his own experience and the plays he directed from his own passion. Eventually he left the performing arts, becoming a novelist who could create in self-absorbed solitude.

He has succeeded in reflecting his life through art. One wishes he had learned more, however, from the events and people he has encountered. Kazan sees himself and all artists as bold adventurers who plunge through life grabbing all the experiences they can get. He is proud that he has managed to grab so many. But he seems unaware that none of them have any resonance beyond the physical and psychological levels. Of the spiritual or the truly philosophical, there's hardly a hint in this large book. That is Kazan's loss, and the reader's.

David Sterritt is on the Monitor staff.

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