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Elia Kazan: The Director And His Gifts; The Kennedy Center Honors the Artist

By David Richards

The Washington Post  December 4, 1983  F1

They started calling him Gadge -- short for Gadget -- 50 years ago at Williams College because he was short and eccentric-looking.

To his distress, Elia Kazan, one of America's most gifted directors, has been stuck with the nickname ever since. "What it suggests," he says, "is a busy, rather compliant little fellow, and I'm none of those. Oh, I'm small, but I'm neither compliant nor agreeable. I'm hard-working, tenacious, stubborn . . . purposeful."

Still, Gadge it was, and Gadge it is sure to be tonight, when Kazan is saluted as one of the five recipients of the sixth annual Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the arts, alongside singer Frank Sinatra, actor James Stewart, composer Virgil Thomson and choreographer Katherine Dunham.

Kazan inspires respect, not to say awe, for the work he has brought both to the stage ("The Skin of Our Teeth," "Death of a Salesman," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs") and to the screen ("Gentleman's Agreement," "Splendor in the Grass," "On the Waterfront," "East of Eden"). But the unshakable nickname, homespun and unpretentious, conceals the complexities of an accomplished artist even as it suggests the affection he has often enjoyed with his peers.

In his "Memoirs," Tennessee Williams observed, "My work -- I don't think anyone has ever known, with the exception of Elia Kazan, how desperately much it meant to me and accordingly treated it -- or should I say its writer -- with the necessary sympathy of feeling." The poet Archibald MacLeish, watching Kazan at work during the rehearsals of "JB," found himself "stricken dumb, as they say in the Good Book, by admiration and wonder."

"He was -- is -- the greatest director," echoes Robert Anderson. "He knew my play, 'Tea and Sympathy,' every heartbeat of the characters, better than I did when we went into rehearsals. We worked on it eight months beforehand, casting, going over the script, me reading it out loud and him wanting to know why I read a line in a particular way. What he's great at is asking questions. He's almost without ego in rehearsals and has time to consider everyone's problems, which is extraordinary."

Even Arthur Miller, viewing today's impoverished dramatic landscape, has said, "There are no Kazans any more. No one else has generated that kind of excitement in my lifetime in the theater." In 1952, however, Miller broke off his friendship with the director after Kazan appeared as a cooperative witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Miller had steadfastly refused to disclose information about others. The highly publicized rupture of conscience, which caused both parties considerable anguish and polarized the intellectual community, was not mended until Kazan directed Miller's autobiographical "After the Fall" for the then-embryonic Repertory Company of Lincoln Center in 1964.

"I think I helped playwrights a lot," Kazan allows modestly. "We got along well. Miller and I. Williams and I. William Inge and I. Even old Archie MacLeish. I was admiring of them. The thing is, their plays, consciously or unconsciously, were written on a theme, so that when you went away from the theater you were left with something. Secondly, they were, consciously or unconsciously, autobiographical. They were telling something they'd been through and felt. Playwrights don't do that anymore. I think the theater has gone down since then. The plays of theme of 30 and 40 years ago don't exist any longer. But that may just be a cranky old bastard's viewpoint."

He gives out a sharp, self-depreciating laugh.

Sitting in the third-floor study of the East Side town house he bought 17 years ago, he looks anything but a legend. At 72, he is demonstrably fit and palpably energetic, a condition he attributes to working every day, liking the work he's doing and being happily married once again. His first wife, Molly, died in 1963; his second, actress-film director Barbara Loden, in 1980. A little more than a year ago, Kazan took his third wife, Frances, and acquired two stepchildren, bringing his brood to eight, if you don't count the five grandchildren or, he adds, "the three dogs and the two cats." "Yeah, I'm a newlywed," he beams with a certain impishness that seems slightly incongruous given the seriousness of his reputation, but somehow accords nicely with his gnarled features, which suggest those of a garden gnome.

He is wearing blue jeans that tend to the baggy, a worn brown sweater and lace-up work boots. He takes to a chair like a longshoreman, albeit a pint-sized one, sometimes hoisting his leg over the arm, sometimes plopping the work boots squarely on a coffee table that groans under the blow. Vivien Leigh liked to call him Kazan the Pasha, because he spent so much time lolling about on the floor.

Kazan jokes that he can't go to the award ceremony in the Opera House dressed as he is this particular afternoon, but you sense he'd prefer to. He is not a man to stand on ceremony, even when the ceremony is among the loftiest the land has to offer its artists and comes, as the Center's honors do, with the stamp of presidential approval.

"I'm glad that somebody in the federal capital is recognizing the arts, however tangentially, however vaguely," he says. "I know it's not the government, but he President Reagan is going to be there. Although I don't agree with his policies, he's part of the government and the government should value the arts, for chrissakes. They're part of the national wealth. People will remember artists long after the politicians are forgotten . . . Look, I don't need the g--damn thing, but it's nice someone in Washington is doing it."

Still, Kazan admits he was concerned about what to say when the president drapes the medal and sash about his neck. On the counsel of a friend, he's decided on "Thank you." That is, one gathers, a concession of sorts from a man who has always spoken his mind with a certain feisty independence.

"The one thing I don't like about it," he allows, "is the inference that you're at the end of the road. Sometimes you see these guys up there and you think, 'Well, it's the last pat on the back before they're shoved in the grave.' Hell, I don't feel at the end of any g--damned road. I'm still happy and struggling. The truth is I have never looked back in my life before. I recently started my autobiography and it's the first time I've ever really dealt with something I did or thought in the past. I suppose if I had to value one play above all others, the one that was closest to me was 'Death of a Salesman.' From the moment I read it, I said, 'It's about me and my old man.' But what satisfied me was the doing of them all. The doing is the reward. Not the end."

And the doing goes on. He quit the theater in 1964 shortly after the death of his first wife. ("We were close in every way. She'd been through all the films and plays I'd done, helped me with the scripts, and when she died I couldn't work in the theater any more. Just couldn't stomach it," he says.) Instead, he concentrated his efforts on such flashy, best-selling novels as "America, America," "The Arrangement" and "The Anatolian." If you asked Kazan his profession today, he'd most likely reply "writer." There's even paper wound into the typewriter on his desk that bears his current thoughts -- arrested, it appears, in mid-sentence and just waiting for him to get back to the keyboard.

"I like my books, even though when the critics praise them, they praise them rather tepidly," he admits. "I've written six of them so far. But I think they have something to say about these times."

He has, however, kept up his association with the Actors Studio, which he cofounded in 1947 with Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, regularly attending the Monday meetings of the director-playwright unit, which he appreciates for its "argumentative" climate. And last month, after a nearly 20-year absence, he returned to the theater to direct the first play he's ever written.

Called "The Chain," it is a latter-day treatment of the Oresteia and deals with the self-perpetuating acts of violence that started with the killing of Agamemnon and continue to this day with the nuclear buildup. The premiere at the Hartman Theater in Stamford, Conn., was greeted with bewilderment bordering on indignation. The New York Times observed that approximately a third of the audience walked out before the end of one performance and noted, "While he Kazan is asking how to save the world, and providing the answer, he is inadvertently raising a question of another sort: How can the theater survive plays like this one?"

Kazan is sanguine about the reaction. "Like everyone else, I guess I just got worked up about the situation of the world today," he says. "The theater is very leery about stuff like that, stuff that's thematic or makes a point. It's not been too well received. What people really want is tap-dancing, musical comedy. It's beyond me. I wouldn't pay $50 to see '42nd Street.' I used to go up to Harlem in the old days to see good tap dancing. For the $100 it would cost me to take my wife to that, I could buy five or six excellent books. Anyway, I'm working on 'The Chain,' gradually getting it into shape. More people stay and applaud at the end. But even if they didn't, I'd still want to do it. It treats a theme I think is important. And the performers are all actors I know from the Actors Studio -- young, eager and full of life."

As much as playwrights will tell you that Kazan is "a playwright's director," actors will tell you he is "an actor's director," encouraging them to go out on a limb in rehearsals with the full confidence that he will catch them if they fall. Kazan began his career as an actor -- he was the young taxi driver in Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty," who barreled on stage at the end, exhorting the audience to "Strike! Strike!" -- and he nurtures warm feelings for the profession.

"I know there are some directors who resent actors, get impatient with them," he says, "but maybe because I used to be an actor, I appreciate their struggle, their problems. Furthermore, I think they're gallant to stay in the damned theater at all now. They're generous with their time and their lives. And I like dealing with them. They're half child, half grown-up. It's like playing with animals, you know, when you roll around the floor with a dog and laugh and kid. I'm not crazy about upper-level intellectuals much. I read the New York Review of Books every month, but that world is not my world. I'm not smart enough. But actors laugh and sing and tell jokes. They're a wonderful bunch of people."

The list of actors Kazan either discovered or propelled to stardom is lengthy, but one measure of its significance is that Marlon Brando ("Streetcar"), Warren Beatty ("Splendor in the Grass") and James Dean ("East of Eden") all made their initial imprint on the public consciousness in Kazan-directed works. It's not simply that Kazan has an unfailing eye for talent, but also that, by preference, he will work with unknown performers, who have yet to assume the confining mantle of celebrity.

"I'm not crazy about movie stars, as stars. They're all right as people," Kazan explains. "But they come with a certain number of restrictions that can ruin your project. You can't make them look foolish. You can't make them human. You can't show them taking a p--- in the back yard. If the guy goes off to war in your film, you know he's going to win. You have to treat stars in a certain way that bores me.

"But when you got these young guys . . . they'd do anything. They were great, full of eagerness. They say that fighters come to fight. These guys -- Dean, Brando, Beatty -- they came to act. You couldn't stop them. The same with the women. When they're young, like Lee Remick was when I first worked with her in "A Face in the Crowd", she wasn't surrounded by makeup people and hairdressers all the time, worrying about this curl or that. She was a kid, she had enthusiasm. That's an entirely different thing. Success is a problem. I know it's much better than failure. But when people become successful, a certain defensiveness comes into them and they start protecting an image."

If Kazan has an image, he's not sure what it is. And it is possible that he cares even less. He is not one to chew on past glories, although he evinces a certain amusement over past mishaps. The one piece of career information he volunteers, delight crinkling his eyes as he does, is that for a while in the 1930s he was a regular on Kate Smith's radio show. Not exactly the credentials you'd expect him to trot out, but somehow oddly humanizing in light of the majestic rhetoric that is sure to wash over him tonight.

When he runs through his favorite films, he does it this way: "A lot of my financial flops are my favorites. 'America, America,' which was how my family came to this country, was a flop. 'Viva, Zapata!,' a flop. 'Baby Doll,' a flop. 'Face in the Crowd,' a flop. There's one picture, a helluva picture, I liked a lot, 'Wild River,' that no one even shows any more. And then a little home movie I made about 10 years ago for $100.25 called 'The Visitors.' A flop." He does not mention the Oscars he won for "Gentleman's Agreement" and "Waterfront."

In Europe, however, where film is prized as an art form, not simply as a money-making device, even the flops are admired. "In some ways I'm more at home there," he acknowledges. "At least they understand me. Films are the worldwide language. If I go to a foreign country and meet Fellini or Antonioni or Rossi, we have an immediate understanding. They're all friends. You can speak to those guys, knowing they're on your wavelength right away."

Although Kazan's work is considered intrinsically American in theme, he was born of Greek parents in Istanbul, when it was still going by the name of Constantinople, and didn't reach America until he was 4. His parents settled in New York City, where his father sold rugs, and the family name, Kazanjoglou, was amputated of its two final syllables. Kazan put himself through Williams by washing dishes, briefly studied at the Yale drama department and then joined the Group Theatre, as a stage manager, painter of scenery, sweeper of floors and actor, eking out $40 a week. For 18 months during the 1930s, he joined the Communist Party, as he later told HUAC, because he felt menaced by the "Depression and the ever-growing power of Hitler."

The acting career, although successful, was not enough. His first major directorial undertaking was Thornton Wilder's gallant tribute to the indomitability of the species, "The Skin of Our Teeth." Tallulah Bankhead is said to have eyed the scrappy little director and then regally informed her producer, "It's either him or me." Kazan stayed. So did Bankhead, as it turned out, although she never spoke civilly to Kazan again. The play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942, and Kazan's star was launched.

For all the anecdotes he's accumulated, Kazan does not willingly reminisce -- partially because he's saving his stories for his autobiography, but also because he is absorbed by his present routine. It consists of rising at dawn, preparing a small breakfast, detaching the phone and then sitting down at the typewriter. Often, that routine unfolds in his country house in Connecticut and is followed by long walks in the fresh air or bouts of wood-chopping to supply two stoves that keep the house warm.

"It's a wonderful life, the life I prefer now over show business, mainly because of what everyone else complains about: you're alone," he says. "I've never minded that, and now I particularly like it. I don't think writers are like birds of a flock. They don't congregate much. I certainly don't. Somebody once said that the most interesting subject a writer could have is his own life. In my case, I guess it's true. I question myself a lot.

"I guess I've always been sort of an outsider. I'm not convivial. I don't need a lot of people. I've always had strong feelings of what's right and wrong. It may not be what anybody else thinks is right or wrong, but I've never felt anything other than this is what I should do. And I've done it. Also I don't think I have a high esteem of myself. Oh, I have some esteem, but I don't think I'm the greatest. I do the best I can, but I keep striving every day of my life. That's provided me with an anchor. I think if I've left my kids anything, it's the idea that effort is important and struggle is what makes life worthwhile."

Gadge is speaking now: "You try and you try."

1983 The Washington Post

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