Elia Kazan has written a robust, intimate, and candid account of his nearly eighty years in America as an immigrant son, insecure college student, apprentice actor, famed director in New York and Hollywood, novelist, lover, and husband. It is not simply that Kazan is willing to discuss the most private matters of his life and career but the familiar tone he takes with his readers that is most beguiling. He often challenges his readers, asking them whether they consider themselves superior to him when he speaks of cheating on his wife or retaliating for slights he experienced as a Greek boy who did not fit the conventional Anglo conceptions of a handsome, successful man. Instead of merely recounting the experiences of his life, he dramatizes them, rekindling the anger and shame he felt over being excluded from proper society, the satisfaction he took from whisking women away from other successful men. As he bluntly admits, much of his behavior has been motivated by ambition and revenge.
Most autobiographies contain photographs, but few autobiographers take Kazan’s tack of interpreting pictures of himself, his family, and others and of inviting readers to likewise. The early pages of Elia Kazan: A Life recount Kazan’s mixed feelings about his harsh father, who wanted his son to go into the carpet business, who opposed his wish to go to Williams College, and who expected his son to choose a woman from his own immigrant class. The photographs do indeed bear out Kazan’s depiction of a family dominated by the father but also closely knit, loving, and at ease with one another. Kazan’s youthful photographs support his recollection of himself as an unformed boy: There is something empty in his face. It is, as he says, a mask, covering all sorts of doubts and desires.
When Kazan’s father learned that his wife had connived to send their eldest son to college, he knocked her down. Kazan suggests that his mother was relieved. Why? She saw that she could take the punishment—that this was the worst her husband could do and that her son would not be prevented from pursuing his own career. Kazan brilliantly evokes this old world, in which the husband seemed to be absolute ruler and yet had to bend (however grudgingly) to the will of mother and son.
At Williams College, Kazan was a loner, waiting on tables, waiting in vain to be invited to join a fraternity. He did well in his classes, especially excelling in literature, but did not know what to do with himself after graduation. He tagged along with a friend who was doing postgraduate work at the Yale School of Drama. There Kazan learned what it meant to be a professional in the theater. He was handy and hardworking, learning how to put together scenery and run a play production.
Kazan’s big break came when the famed directors of The Group Theater, Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg, invited him to become one of its members. Kazan freely admits that he was not much good as an actor, even though he spent nearly all of his time studying acting and created a sensation in The Group’s production of Clifford Odets’ radical play, Waiting for Lefty (1935). Kazan made himself useful to people, performing as stage manager and technician when he could not get acting parts. Gradually he learned from Clurman and Strasberg how to direct actors and made it his ambition to become a director of plays and motion pictures.
Kazan provides many fascinating passages on his fellow professionals. He shows how he learned from them and evaluates his own strengths and weaknesses. For example, Clurman was adept at stimulating actors’ enthusiasm for their parts. He could take a whole cast and instill in each member a deep emotional and intellectual feeling for his role and for the play. He was sometimes at a loss, however, when it came to translating this feeling into “stage business” and would leave it to Kazan to decide where the actors were to move. Kazan believes that as a director he had a better sense of the values of a whole production, but he could not improve upon Clurman’s deft handling of actors as an ensemble.
As its name suggests, The Group Theater advocated collective creativity. It was dedicated to producing plays of social significance and to developing theater craft. Some Group members were Communists and wanted to produce plays that reflected a class analysis of American society. They saw themselves as artistic revolutionaries. For a time, Kazan fell under their influence, not surprising for a young man who had felt excluded by the ruling class and yearned for both distinction and power. Yet Kazan’s politics were temperamental, and he was much too single-minded in his pursuit of his own success to remain under...
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