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‘The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan’ offers an honest look at a complicated artist

Movie Director Elia Kazan on October 24, 1968 in New York, New York. (Santi Visalli/Getty Images)

Edited by Albert J. Devlin with Marlene J. Devlin

Knopf. 649 pp. $40

Vivid, pungent and forceful, Elia Kazan’s letters immerse us in the life of a working director — and not just any director. Kazan was an important, influential figure in 20th-century American culture. His correspondence concerns the original Broadway productions of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Death of a Salesman,” the filming of “On the Waterfront” and “East of Eden,” the struggle to create an American repertory theater at Lincoln Center. In “The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan,” the editors’ thoughtfully annotated selection of some 300 letters focuses on Kazan’s professional life and a personal journey that has little to do with politics. His decision to give the names of fellow communists in the Group Theatre to the House Committee on Un-American Activities is passed over briskly, mostly in expressions of thanks to supportive friends like Robert Sherwood and Budd Schulberg.

Letters from his Group Theatre days to his wife-to-be, Molly Day Thacher, and to the Group’s leaders show Kazan in his early 20s as a shrewd observer of other people and a self-aware analyst of his own character. “I early determined never to accept anybody’s estimate of myself,” he wrote in 1934, responding to the Group’s judgment that he was a poor actor and asserting his determination to become a good director. When he told Thacher, “I don’t want what I am getting now, which is doing one thing and always wishing to God that it was something else,” he may have thought that his discontent stemmed from his low status in the Group. But as the letters move into the 1940s and ’50s, we get the sense that this was a lifelong problem, and Kazan knew it.

In his blisteringly candid but skewed 1988 autobiography, “Elia Kazan: A Life,” he claimed that he had been miserable during the years of his greatest success, “straining to be a nice guy so people would like me.” He implied that the “mask” he wore “to hide a truer feeling” kept him from working honestly with his collaborators and destroyed his pleasure in that work. It’s impossible to believe this entirely as we read his detailed letters to Tennessee Williams, firmly laying out the structural problems he sees in “Camino Real” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Kazan comes across as a strong, self-confident artist, unafraid to voice opinions he knows may upset his friend.

"The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan" by Elia Kazan and Albert J. Devlin. (Knopf/Knopf)

His commitment and integrity are even more evident in correspondence with studio executives over censorship troubles with the film versions of “Streetcar,” “East of Eden” and “Baby Doll.” A leading player in the battle to make American movies more adult, Kazan urged Jack Warner in 1955, “as a matter of self preservation, to put on the screen . . . only what they cannot and will not ever see on their TV . . . we must be bold.” He bluntly termed Warner Bros. Studio’s threat not to release “A Face in the Crowd” without the Legion of Decency’s approval “a breach of contract. . . . We’d have to sue you.” These are not the words of a man going through the motions or straining to be a nice guy so people would like him.

Nonetheless, a constant undercurrent in his correspondence supports Kazan’s late-life assessment that he was unhappy and unfulfilled, though not for precisely the reasons his autobiography identifies. He came into the theatre, he wrote in 1934, because it could “give play to everything I could possibly learn or experience.” He worked best when he felt a personal connection to a play or film; indeed, his comments on scripts as different as Williams’s “The Rose Tattoo” and William Inge’s “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” show him analyzing them (presumably unconsciously) in terms of his own troubled marriage. But as a director, Kazan’s job was to serve the script. It could never be a direct vehicle for his feelings like the brutally honest letters he wrote to Thacher during the periods of estrangement caused by his infidelities (about which he was as unabashed as he was about his HUAC testimony).

Theatre’s collaborative demands were difficult for Kazan, though we see him meeting them brilliantly in perceptive letters to his set and costume designers. (His legendary rapport with actors in rehearsal and on the set cannot, alas, be captured in correspondence.) Film appealed because it was a director’s medium, but even when he wrote his own screenplay, as he did for “America America,” he still had to deal with studio heads, who held the ultimate power. Only when he turned to writing novels in the 1960s could Kazan say what he wanted without compromise or concessions. His autobiography’s bitter tone may stem from the fact that “The Arrangement” and the books that followed did not garner the acclaim given his stage and film work.

“The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan” provides a welcome complement — a corrective, really — to the unflattering self-portrait offered in “A Life.” Without doubting Kazan’s retrospective truthfulness about the emotional turbulence seething underneath his creative projects, we can reasonably believe that words written in the thick of those endeavors do not lie when they show an artist vitally engaged in his work. These letters make possible a fuller understanding of Elia Kazan as both a formidably gifted director and a painfully conflicted human being.

Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”


Edited by Albert J. Devlin with Marlene J. Devlin

Knopf. 649 pp. $40

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