- Hardcover: 544 pages
- Publisher: Harper; 1st Edition edition (November 8, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780060195793
- ISBN-13: 978-0060195793
- ASIN: 0060195797
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 2.4 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 20 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #909,830 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Elia Kazan: A Biography Hardcover – November 8, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to give Kazan (1909–2003) an honorary Oscar in 1999, it rekindled the lingering resentment over his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee nearly 50 years earlier. Schickel, who produced a short film for the Academy's presentation and covered the controversy in his role as Time's movie critic, has virtually no sympathy for Kazan's detractors, arguing that HUAC was "a harsh and permanent fact of American life" in the early Cold War era and, more importantly, that Kazan was testifying against Stalinists, not innocent liberals. He also observes that Kazan's early efforts at self-defense may ironically have worked against him, sealing his image in the public eye. The biography's main goal, however, is to restore Kazan's artistic achievements to their rightful prominence in his life story. Working with the director's extensive production notes, Schickel traces Kazan's rise from a fledgling actor in the Method-touting ensemble the Group Theatre to his creative pinnacle presenting Tennessee Williams on Broadway while making films like 1954's On the Waterfront. Despite Schickel's friendship with his subject, this analysis is unsparingly thorough, to the point where Schickel's forceful, personalized criticism becomes as attention grabbing as Kazan's body of work. Photos.
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*Starred Review* Both effusive and enigmatic, brazen and insecure, legendary director Elia Kazan is best known for bringing the emotional realism of mid-twentieth-century New York theater to the silver screen. But, in 1999, the accomplishments of the Greek immigrant and founding member of the Actors Studio were overshadowed by the controversy surrounding his Honorary Academy Award. (In 1952, some 15 years after abandoning the Communist Party, Kazan "named names" before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.) In this sympathetic, scrupulously researched biography, film scholar and Time critic Schickel examines the career of the directorial tour de force whose dossier includes Tony Award winner Death of a Salesman, On the Waterfront (for which he earned the Best Director Oscar), and stage and screen versions of A Streetcar Named Desire. Kazan's purpose, said playwright and best friend Arthur Miller, was always "to hit the audience in the belly because he knows all people are alike in the belly, no matter what their social position or education." Though Schickel's book focuses on the professional opus of Kazan (who died in 2003), the author also vividly conveys the director's potent personality: his exuberance, relentless work ethic, and frank assessments of the fleeting nature of fame. Allison Block
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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But first, this book gives a complete chronological analysis of his career. From his low level involvement with "The Group", a self-contained theater group with strong communist influences, to his first movie directorial debut. Kazan started as an undistinguished worker and grew to an "actor's director". This is overlaid with his involvement as a Communist and early disenchantment. Later, he is called before the committee after his great success and names former stage communists with whom he worked. The initial negative input dies down and he goes on to some of his best work including the classic, "On the Waterfront".
This book will have great appeal for movie and stage historians as it really is it is an in-depth analysis. But the main appeal to me was understanding the hysteria of the Red scare and why 50 years later it would elicit such a negative response. This book demonstrates the artists coming out of the depression influence when faith in capitalism weakened. The growth of fascism heightened the "sales pitch" to this new theory of a great life for all, communism. But, as was later proven, communism had weaknesses also causing many Americans to experiment with a form of government that was cruel and a rival of America.
It's impossible to determine how difficult it was for Kazan to name names. While he lost some friends, his career continued very successfully for some time before it faltered as it does for most in show business after a good run. But 50 years later an honor becomes a media event as modern day left-leaning actors chose to make this an issue. Interestingly, some actors such as Robert Di Nero, Martin Scorcese and Warren Beatty supported and honored Kazan. They had worked with him early in their career. I don't fault Nolte/Harris. In the prism of today's world, it's easy to ostracize a snitch. But the issue is much more complex than that. Our world was in turmoil. Decisions were made. Lives were changed on both sides. Kazan became an opponent of Communism but chose to focus on his career. Not naming names of known communists would have probably ruined his career.
In summary, this is an exhaustive critical study of his work. Frankly, the study is so exhaustive that that is the weakness. This book will be most appealing to true movie and stage history buffs. Also, those with a curiosity into the Red Scare and 1950s American history such as me will receive great information. Other than that, be forewarned this is a long time consuming educational book.
Richard Schickel's magisterial biography begins with this incident, then goes back to trace Kazan's modest upbringing as a Greek citizen in Ottoman Turkey. Driven from his homeland at an early age, he came with his family to the United States, and developed a passionate attitude towards his chosen vocation. With a dominant father to contend with - who, like many parents of the early twentieth century, disapproved of his son's decision to enter the arts as a profession - the young Kazan had to make of life what he could, with few advantages to help him. He became involved in left-wing theater, especially the Group Theater of the mid-Thirties, where his colleagues included Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg. Initially Kazan pursued a career as an actor, but he soon discovered that his major talents lay in the directorial field. After a hesitant start, he had established himself as a regular name by the end of the Thirties.
Kazan did not shoot to fame, but gradually worked himself up the Broadway ladder until his life-changing decision to direct A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. He formed a close working relationship with Tennessee Williams, and together the two of them assembled a dream cast for the Broadway premiere of the play, with Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy in the leading roles. Kazan was a meticulous director, who tried to give his actors as much opportunity to develop their characters on their own; not for him the rather prosaic methods of blocking a production while treating the cast as marionettes. STREETCAR proved a huge hit, and established Kazan as one of the major directorial talents of the age. After some negotiation, he also helmed the film version, which contained the Broadway cast save for Tandy, who was not sufficiently well-known to lead the cast. Vivien Leigh took over; and Kazan had a fine time trying to persuade her to change her interpretation of the role, setting aside much of the stage-business that she had previously used in the London production directed by her then husband Laurence Olivier.
Schickel's biography is particularly detailed about the period between the mid-Forties and the early Sixties when Kazan enjoyed his greatest fame as a director. Sometimes the book becomes something of a catalog, with each film and theater production meticulously described; but we learn how many actors responded positively to Kazan's laissez-faire methods of directing, focusing less on an overall interpretation and rather developing individual performances.
Inevitably, however, the focus of interest centers on Kazan's motives for talking to HUAC. Schickel is quite defensive about his subject, suggesting that Kazan was faced with an almost impossible dilemma. If he kept silent, then his career as a director would be ruined; if he named names to HUAC, then he might also have struggled for work. In the end Kazan's decision did not lead to many people's careers being destroyed; neither his own nor those whom he named.
As the Sixties progressed, so Kazan became less and less involved in movies, choosing to pursue a career as a writer instead. His last film, an adaptation of Scott Fitzgerald's THE LAST TYCOON (1976) proved to be a flop, despite a script penned by Harold Pinter. Thereafter Kazan retired to become a writer, only to emerge briefly in the late Nineties when the controversy over his honorary Oscar emerged.
Schickel's biography tells the story of a man driven by ambition, who nonetheless cared for his actors. Sometimes his ambition adversely affected his personal life; he was married three times, and had countless lovers both famous as well as unknown. Yet it was part of his achievement that he managed to keep personal and professional lives entirely separate, a quality that kept him in the first rank of Hollywood and Broadway directors for many years.