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On January 16, 1951, a black Lincoln convertible pulled into the driveway at 2000 Coldwater Canyon Drive in Beverly Hills. Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan had just traveled cross-country by train from New York. Miller, tall and lean, had a dark, angular, weathered face and a receding hairline. Kazan, known as Gadget or Gadg to his friends, was small with a large nose and a mop of wavy black hair. The men were in Los Angeles to set up their first film together. Miller had written a screenplay for Kazan to direct, and both had a great deal riding on the venture. But already there was a serious problem. On the train, Kazan had read the most recent draft of The Hook, a story of union corruption on the Brooklyn waterfront, and he'd been disappointed by what Miller had accomplished so far. Kazan made it clear that the script needed to be much better.
Greeted at the front door by a servant, Miller and Kazan entered the home of Charles Feldman, a prominent Hollywood agent and independent film producer. He was producing Kazan's latest project, the film of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. As Feldman told his friend and investor Joseph P. Kennedy, he believed that Kazan's work had been outstanding. Shooting had been completed before the holidays, but some post-production work remained to be done. Feldman, away on business and anxious to keep the director happy, had offered Kazan the run of his art-filled house. An inveterate collector, Feldman purchased paintings and bibelots in quantity, often sight unseen. The furniture, mostly English antiques and modern pieces, was kept to a minimum to emphasize the Chagalls, Renoirs, and Toulouse-Lautrecs that covered the walls. There were Thai bronze Buddhas. There were Ming and Sui stone heads. There were Tang and Chou horses and birds.
In the garden, steps led up to a heated swimming pool, beside which Miller set up his typewriter on a glass table. To understand the strain he was under, it is essential to keep in mind that The Hook was not just any screenplay. It was to be the work with which Miller followed Death of a Salesman, which had been a huge success on Broadway in 1949, directed by Kazan. Many critics thought the thirty-three-year-old Miller had written the great American play, and some pronounced it the century's finest drama. There was a price to be paid for acclaim of that magnitude. After the premiere, Miller confided to his producer, Kermit Bloomgarden, that he knew he was going to have a hell of a time topping that. Indeed, there had been moments when Miller wondered whether he would be able to write another play at all.
As Kazan perceived, Miller was not a playwright who invented stories. He needed to find his material in his own life. Yet The Hook was not based on anything Miller had actually experienced. The screenplay did not come out of a crisis that he himself had endured, and as a result he did not completely trust it. Miller began to worry that for a man his age, he had not lived enough. Yet the pressure was on to revise quickly while they pitched to Twentieth, Warner Bros., and Columbia Pictures. Unfortunately, Miller was not like his rival Tennessee Williams, who could work anywhere, under almost any conditions. He was a creature of routine, who found it difficult to write in unfamiliar surroundings.
Adding to the playwrights pressures was the threat of losing Kazan. In a period dubbed by the critic Brooks Atkinson the Williams/Miller era, Kazan seemed at times to enjoy playing each against the other. Kazan, wavering provocatively between the two, had finally chosen to film A Streetcar Named Desire instead of Death of a Salesman. Afterward, when Williams had had every expectation that Kazan would do his new play, The Rose Tattoo, on Broadway, the director jumped ship at the last minute, going off to Los Angeles for The Hook. Evidently, Kazan was not about to give either playwright reason to take him for granted. Always the director, he controlled people and situations; he didn't like being controlled by them.
Kazan was then probably the most powerful director in America. On Broadway, he had directed three Pulitzer Prize-winning plays. His association with Miller and Williams had earned him a reputation for being a playwright's director, but he was also clearly an actor's director. His work with Marlon Brando in the first stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 had broken exciting new ground. In Hollywood, he'd negotiated a six-picture, non-exclusive deal with Twentieth Century Fox, at the highest per-picture director's salary the studio had ever agreed to pay. Kazan had already won an Academy Award as Best Director for Gentleman's Agreement, but it was Streetcar, on which the advance word was spectacular, that promised to be his watershed. Before that, despite the Oscar, Kazan had confided in Williams that he didn't really know how to make films yet. In Streetcar, Kazan demonstrated the mastery he so often showed on stage. The Hook was particularly important to Kazan, since he needed to follow Streetcar with another great film; that's why the current draft had been such a big disappointment. As it was, the script wasn't going to give either man what he needed.
There was an even greater pressure burdening Kazan. The House Un-American Activities Committee, which since 1938 had been attempting to document the Communist infiltration of American film and theater, was preparing to launch motion picture industry hearings in March. Its investigations had been given new and vigorous life by Americas entry into the Korean War in 1950. Having belonged to the Communist Party for about nineteen months between 1934 and 1936, Kazan figured it was only a matter of time before HUAC summoned him. He was visible. He was successful. He was very much in demand. Those qualities made him a prime target for a committee whose raison dêtre, in large part, was publicity. If they call me, I'll tell them to go fuck themselves, Kazan vowed to Kermit Bloomgarden. If he did that, his Hollywood career would be destroyed. The inevitability seemed to shadow Kazan's every action.
The climate of fear in Hollywood also had an impact on the particular project he and Miller were selling. When they met with Darryl Zanuck in his high-domed office at Twentieth Century Fox, the production chief turned down The Hook because of its politically sensitive subject matter. Zanuck, though eager to begin Kazan's next film, wouldn't touch Miller's script, concerned as it was with unions and labor. Abe Lastfogel, Kazan's agent at William Morris, left the meeting and went directly to Warner Bros. to try his luck there.
Meanwhile, Kazan had something else he wanted to do on the Fox lot. Ostensibly, he took Miller to the set of As Young as You Feel to visit the director, Harmon Jones, who had previously worked as Kazan's film editor. But the real reason was to see a girl he had heard about from Charlie Feldman. The detour offered a way to blow off some of the tension.
Before Miller and Kazan actually saw her, her name echoed through the studio. Marilyn! an assistant shouted frantically while Jones told Kazan about the trouble he'd been having with the twenty-four-year-old actress. She was forever disappearing from the set. Worse, when she returned, her eyes were often swollen from crying, making it difficult to film her. Fortunately, her role was a small one. This was to be her final day, if only Jones could get the shots he needed. She appeared at last, her skin-tight black dress disclosing a body perfect even by Hollywood standards. She had blue-gray eyes, a turned-up nose, and luminous white skin. She wore her fine blonde hair pinned on top of her head.
Marilyn Monroe was in crisis. When she finished work on this picture, she had no further assignments. After today, she had nothing to do and nowhere to go. A career that meant everything to her might well be over. Though Marilyn was under contract to Twentieth, Darryl Zanuck, who loathed her, was unlikely to pick up her option in May. Though she had signed a three-year contract with the William Morris Agency as recently as December 5, suddenly no one there would take her calls. Marilyn felt as if she were about to fall off the face of the earth.
Highlighting Marilyn's predicament was the fact that she had just had the best year of her professional life. She owed it all to Johnny Hyde, a partner and senior agent at William Morris. For two years, he had worked tirelessly on her behalf. Very much in love with Marilyn, the dwarf-like agent believed in her, and in her dream of being a star, as no one had done before.