The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan provided the focus for a fascinating panel at an October 23 discussion hosted by Barnes & Noble on Manhattan’s West Side. Characterizing Kazan as “America’s greatest film and theater director,” film professor Foster Hirsh introduced three people who knew and loved him: legendary Alfred A Knopf book editor Katherine Hourigan, Avram Ludwig of the Actors Studio; and actor Stathis Gialellis, star of America, America, Kazan’s favorite and most personal film.
“I was immediately captured by his voice, his energy, his ability to seize the moment. He had a magnetism, everyone was drawn to him,” Hourigan recalled. “The letters are amazing. There was that difficult relationship with his first wife, Molly Thacher, a wealthy society person who was also leftwing and a Yale Drama School graduate. They loved each other very much, but Kazan was incapable of being faithful. He felt it was part of his education. He wanted to know everything about people. The truth comes out in the letters.”
In one letter, he confesses to his wife about his affair with Marilyn Monroe, characterizing her as a “touching, pathetic waif.” Kazan wrote “If you divorce me, I’ll tell you plainly I will in time get married again and have more children. I feel I’m a family man and I want a family, and am a damned good one. I don’t care what your judgment is on that. I think I see the world around me (us) a hell of a lot more clearly than you do or anyone else does for that matter.”
Regardless of his personal involvements, Hourigan said his Kazan’s thrust was his art. “Work was his drug, in theater, in movies and in writing. Writing was so important to him. He was always looking for the exact right word, the surprising word. He didn’t want anything pedestrian or commonplace. In the same way, he was always wanting his actors to do something surprising.”
“Kazan was provocative,” commented Ludwig. “I think he liked to shock you. Most contact you have with people is so boring. But he broke the rules. My parents said he was the best director ever. He never said ‘no’ to an actor. He didn’t limit the actor’s imagination, and that was his brilliance.”
Gialellis, who became a close friend of Kazan, said “he would allow every actor to do what the actor thought was right for the part. But in the end you did what he wanted you to do. Together, you discovered so many things.” Gialellis beat out hundreds of actors for the role of Stavros in America, America, including Warren Beatty. Kazan wrote Beatty that he was not right for the role, “because I am going to look for a Latin boy, a Greek, or Italian that understands this part, because he absorbed it with his mother’s milk.”
Gialellis recalled: “Publicity at the time said that Kazan chose me after spotting me in an office because I looked right. But I was in drama school in Athens, in a school that practiced the Stanislavsky method, like the Actors Studio. And I was the assistant to Greece’s leading film director.” Kazan interviewed many young actors in Athens but did not select one. Gialellis flew to New York and knocked on Kazan’s door. He got the part.
“Kazan was great. He was very tender with his actors. He never yelled. He talked with you. And he never rehearsed. He believed that in an emotional scene you don’t rehearse. It had to happen during the first two or three takes. Every time I saw him over the years, it was always a lesson to me. One night he said ‘What are you doing tonight? Let’s go and see a friend.’ The friend was Clifford Odets. We talked for six hours and it was the greatest experience of my life.”
Kazan’s “naming names” for the House Un-American Committee continues to provoke controversy. Ludwig says Kazan called six out of the eight people he named in advance and got their permission. “Kazan’s action received such enormous notice because he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times the next day saying ‘I did it voluntarily, and I believe in what I did.’ That brought everyone down on him. It made him the lightning rod for compliance with the Committee. He did it because he did not want to be squashed.” Kazan never backed down in public, or apologized.
Gialellis had a different take. “Many times, from what he told me and from what I understood by his behavior, he was very hurt and hated for what he had done. Knowing him, he would take the ad in the paper because he was showing he was not defeated. McCarthy was trying to squash those people down, squash their spirits. Kazan said he was not squashed, but of course he was because all his life he would be trying to find the answer to what happened to him. I never judged him, and he spoke about it for many years.”
Highly recommended, The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan presents 300 letters culled from the 1,300 letters that Kazan wrote. It offers a fascinating inside look at a unique personality who left an indelible mark on film, theatre and people. At 629 pages, it is a great read.