Elia Kazan: A Lifeby Elia Kazan
“This is the best autobiography I’ve read by a prominent American in I don’t know how many years. It is endlessly absorbing and I believe this is because it concerns a man who is looking to find a coherent philosophy that will be tough enough to contain all that is ugly in his person and his experience, yet shall prove sufficiently compassionate to give honest judgment on himself and others. Somehow, the author brings this off. Elia Kazan: A Life has that candor of confession which is possible only when the deepest wounds have healed and honesty can achieve what honesty so rarely arrives at—a rich and hearty flavor. By such means, a famous director has written a book that offers the kind of human wealth we find in a major novel.” —Norman Mailer
In this amazing autobiography, Kazan at seventy-eight brings to the undiluted telling of his story—and revelation of himself—all the passion, vitality, and truth, the almost outrageous honesty, that have made him so formidable a stage director (A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tea and Sympathy), film director (On the Waterfront, East of Eden, Gentleman’s Agreement, Splendor in the Grass, Baby Doll, The Last Tycoon, A Face in the Crowd), and novelist (the number-one best-seller The Arrangement.)
Kazan gives us his sense of himself as an outsider (a Greek rug merchant’s son born in Turkey, an immigrant’s son raised in New York and educated at Williams College). He takes us into the almost accidental sojourn at the Yale Drama School that triggered his commitment to theatre, and his edgy, exciting apprenticeship with the new and astonishing Group Theatre, as stagehand and stage manager—and as actor (Waiting for Lefty, Golden Boy) . . . his first nervous and then successful attempts at directing for theatre and movies (The Skin of Our Teeth, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) . . . his return to New York to co-found the Actors Studio (and his long and ambivalent relationship with Lee Strasberg) . . . his emergence as premier director on both coasts.
With his director’s eye for the telling scene, Kazan shares the joys and complications of production, his unique insights on acting, directing, and producing. He makes us feel the close presence of the actors, producers, and writers he’s worked with—James Dean, Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams, Vivien Leigh, Tallulah Bankhead, Sam Spiegel, Darryl Zanuck, Harold Clurman, Arthur Miller, Budd Schulberg, James Baldwin, Clifford Odets, and John Steinbeck among them. He gives us a frank and affectionate portrait of Marilyn Monroe. He talks with startling candor about himself as husband and—in the years where he obsessively sought adventure outside marriage—as lover. For the first time, he discusses his Communist Party years and his wrenching decision in 1952 to be a cooperative witness before HUAC. He writes about his birth as a writer.
The pace and organic drama of his narrative, his grasp of the life and politics of Broadway and Hollywood, the keenness with which he observes the men and women and worlds around him, and, above all, the honest with which he pursues and captures his own essence, make this one of the most fascinating autobiographies of our time.
New York Times Book Review
“A huge sprawling autobiography.”
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Meet the Author
Elia Kazan was born in 1909 in Istanbul, graduated from Williams College, and attended the Yale School of Drama before joining the Group Theatre. He was the founder of the Actors Studio, and won three Tony Awards (All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, J.B.) and two Academy Awards (Gentleman’s Agreement, On the Waterfront) for direction, as well as an honorary Oscar in 1999 for lifetime achievement. He wrote seven novels and an autobiography. He died in 2003.
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Elia Kazan was drawn to show business but in the early days of his career he showed little aptitude for any place in the theatre. He was quite good at painting sets and by simply hanging around was eventually given a few bit parts in several plays. He got little notice from the critics but Harold Clurman took him under his wing and Kazan grew some as an actor within the Group Theatre. Most of the group had socialist leanings but Kazan was too much of an individual to follow any structured ideology and he let it be known that he would never become a part of the communist party. During the 30's there was very little money to be made by working with the Group Theatre. He finally found a way to augment his income, and that was doing radio plays and was pretty good at it. Kazan's wife Molly's great grandfather was president of Yale University. Kazan slipped around the edges of conflict; Molly stood up right in the center of the storm. Molly's principals permitted no deviation from her obligations of what was right. In the late forties and early fifties the Stanislavsky method of acting was making its way from the Moscow Arts Theatre to New York. Lee Strasberg and Kazan opened the Actors Studio on West 44th Street in an old church building. At the time there were a number of adherents to the Stanislavsky Method teaching their brand of the method and each claiming to have tapped into the authentic Stanislavsky system while pointing out the others as imposters. In time Lee Strasberg and the Stanislavsky method were one. During one summer in Hollywood Kazan turned his life around. He made the decision that he would never make it as an actor. His friend Clifford Odets wrote a screenplay for Lewis Milestone and it gave Kazan a chance to spend time with and learn from one of the great film directors the art of script writing as well as the basic mechanics of directing. The film they worked on was never made but Kazan got the guidance and the inspiration he needed to begin his career as a director. Back in New York Kazan was hired to direct 'The Skin of our Teeth' and in spite of fighting over every line with Tallulah Bankhead from start to finish he managed to bring a successful play to Broadway. He then followed that up by rescuing a play starring Helen Hayes called Harriet. Kazan brought the play back to life from the brink of disaster. Then he suddenly had two Broadway hits on his hands at the same time. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn came a bit later, and that also turned into a big hit. Kazan paid his dues in Hollywood with a couple of lack luster films followed by Street Car Named Desire with Marlon Brando on Broadway and film. Then his big success came with On the Waterfront. Kazan had more than a little conflict in his personal life, that of a wife and family and a mistress along with the HUAC Hearings in Washington. Elia Kazan has written in the highs and lows of his life and career, and there are times you might find the book a bit tedious in detail - but if you'll follow along to the end you will be richly rewarded for your effort. Tom Barnes author of 'Doc Holliday's Road to Tombstone.