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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Elia Kazan, director of many of the most celebrated plays of the 20th century

Coinciding with Elia Kazan’s 101st birthday today is Martin Scorsese’s recent release of a new documentary, Letter to Elia, which will be screened at The New York Film Festival on September 27 and will air nationally on American Masters on PBS on October 4. The documentary focuses on classics by Kazan (Gentleman’s Agreement, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd) that had a formative influence on Scorsese's own early work. Often less heralded are many stage hits directed by Kazan before he began making movies. Even after he was a successful filmmaker, Kazan frequently returned to New York to work with his favorite playwrights.

Kazan credits the scarcity of directors in New York during World War II for the career-making opportunity that fell his way in 1942. When he visited his draft board after the attack on Pearl Harbor Kazan discovered he was 3-A due to his age (32), his wife, and two kids. Shortly afterward, producer Michael Myerberg chose him to direct Thornton Wilder’s new play, The Skin of Our Teeth. Why him, Kazan wondered, and not Orson Welles or Jed Harris, director of Wilder’s previous success, Our Town. According to Kazan’s autobiography A Life, Myerberg had already assembled his cast of stars and needed a pliable young director. Kazan wanted the job but remembered, “this was the first play I directed that I found challenging beyond my talent and technique.” He was surprised to find the play “perfectly cast” with four established stars: Tallulah Bankhead, Frederic March, Florence March, and Florence Reed—and one star-to-be in Montgomery Clift. Managing Bankhead’s star-sized ego proved to be Kazan’s biggest challenge. He marks their epic shouting match the night before opening as the moment he discovered how to use his inner rage: “It was then that I became a director.”

Rave reviews vied with savage attacks to make Teeth “the play that most enlivened the state of drama” in 1942 according to Lewis Nichols in his year-end roundup for The New York Times.

Working with Arthur Miller in 1946 and 1947 on the original Broadway production of All My Sons taught Kazan how effective working directly with a playwright could be—and he adopted this approach going forward. The process worked: All My Sons ran for 328 performances and won Tony Awards for Miller as author and Kazan as director. Tennessee Williams was so impressed by the directing of All My Sons that he insisted to his agent and producer that Kazan direct his new play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Knowing this enabled Kazan to negotiate for 20% of the proceeds and the credit line, “Irene Selznick presents Elia Kazan’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The 1947 production of Streetcar is now legendary for introducing 23-year-old Marlon Brando to the world as the swaggering Stanley Kowalski. Kazan had been impressed with Brando’s work in a small part in a Maxwell Anderson drama he had produced the year before. He gave Brando twenty dollars to take a bus to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to read for Williams. Brando decided to use the money to eat, hitchhiked to Provincetown, and didn’t arrive until three days later—but the reading was a smash and Kazan records receiving “an ecstatic call from our author, in a voice near hysteria. Brando had overwhelmed him.” Jessica Tandy won the role of Blanche Du Bois when Kazan and Williams saw her in Los Angeles in Portrait of a Madonna, an earlier Williams play produced by her husband Hume Cronyn. “It was instantly apparent,” Williams wrote, “that Jessie was Blanche.”

Streetcar ran 855 performances. Jessica Tandy won the 1948 Tony Award for best actress and the play won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Considering the fame Streetcar brought him, Kazan is comparatively modest about his contribution to the play’s success in A Life:
There was no way to spoil Streetcar. No matter who directed it, with what concept, what cast, in what language, it was always hailed, often as “better than the original production.” What could I say to that? Bravo, Tennessee.
David Denby, in his review of A Life in The New York Review of Books thinks Kazan had exactly the mix of sensibilities to get the balance between Stanley and Blanche right:
In A Life, Kazan repeatedly deplores his own vacillating and compromising temperament, but perhaps this weakness added peculiar strengths to his skills as a director. Kazan could be sympathetic to both Stanley Kowalski’s brute appetite and Blanche Du Bois’s self-delusions perhaps because he saw both in his own character. A man of more coherent temper might not have understood the play so well.
Miller and Kazan had become close friends after the production of All My Sons. After Miller sent Kazan the script of Death of a Salesman in July, 1948 he wrote “I didn’t move from the phone for two days.” Kazan’s response was immediate: “Your play killed me.” He wanted to direct it that season. As Kazan wrote, “We understood each other immediately. I was for a time the perfect director for him and this showed most in Death of a Salesman, which is a play that dealt with experiences I knew well in my own life.” Yet, despite their affinity, they differed on the casting of Willy Loman. Miller envisioned Willy a small man. But Kazan knew Lee Cobb. They had been young actors together and, though Cobb at thirty-seven was twenty-five years younger than Willy, Kazan knew Cobb to be
a mass of contradictions: loving and hateful, anxious yet still supremely pleased with himself, smug but full of doubt, guilty and arrogant, fiercely competitive but very withdrawn, publicly private, suspicious but always reaching for trust, boastful with a modest air, begging for total acceptance no matter what he did to others. In other words, the part was him; I knew that Willy was in Cobb, there to be pulled out.
Death of a Salesman opened in February 1949, ran for 742 performances, and won six Tony Awards, including best author for Miller, best director for Kazan, and best supporting actor for Arthur Kennedy as Biff. The play also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949.

Kazan would go on to direct the original Broadway productions of Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real in 1953 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955 with Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie and Burl Ives as Big Daddy (the play won another Pulitzer for Williams and Kazan got another Tony); Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959 with Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, and Rip Torn (Tonys for Kazan, Page, Torn), and the original production of Miller’s After the Fall (with Jason Robards and Barbara Loden) in 1964 at Lincoln Center.

Related LOA works: Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater; Tennessee Williams: Plays 1937-1955; Arthur Miller: Collected Plays: 1944-1961

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