Elia Kazan: A Biography

Elia Kazan: A Biography

by Richard Schickel

ISBN: 9780060955120

Publisher Harper Perennial

Published in Entertainment/Music, Biographies & Memoirs/Arts & Literature

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

The Anatolian Smile

He wanted to be something—somebody—long before he knew what, exactly, he wanted to be. In that sense, Elia Kazan's story is a typical immigrant's story. There is something fierce and needy about this young man that chimes with the tales of thousands upon thousands of American newcomers in the first decades of the twentieth century. For these young strangers, living, often precariously, in families where English was forever the second language, the simple desire to make something of themselves—they didn't much care what, as long as it entailed rising out of a class treated contemptuously by America's ruling WASPs—was their ruling passion.

But making something of yourself implies a remaking of that self—either by aping the manner, dress, speech, attitudes of the elite or by becoming a determined rebel, if not a full-scale revolutionary. The annals of the radical left (and, more recently, the radical right) are rich in figures from bourgeois families (as Kazan's briefly was) who became cultural and political subversives (as Kazan did, in his early years).

He could not, however, long maintain the dedicated political or cultural radical's vow of poverty. The pull of his family's values and ambitions was too strong. They had come to America for the simplest reasons—to escape tyranny in their native land (they were Anatolian Greeks, ruled for centuries by Turks)—and to make good, which they defined simply as making as much money as possible as quickly as possible. Kazan might insist that he remained a lifelong "man of the left." But he also remained his father's son and his uncle's nephew, inheriting their Depression-dashed dreams of riches.

So there was always in Elia Kazan a conflict between his ideals and his ambitions. It was a conflict he tried to ameliorate—though he never succeeded in fully settling it—by burying a profound anger under an air of eager accommodation, of ostensible good nature. It was a conflict that shaped the potent realism of his plays and movies, imparting to them a passion, a psychological intensity; particularly in the performances of his actors, that was largely without precedent in the theatrical arts, and hugely influential on their later history.

Kazan's autobiography, A Life, published in 1988, when he was seventy-nine years old, begins with a reflection on his seemingly perpetual outrage, and his lifelong need to cover it with his " Anatolian smile," an expression, much remarked upon by Greeks of his and previous generations, betokening a sort of noncommittal agreeability; at once distant and obliging—but masking one's deepest feelings. Looking back Kazan wrote simply, "I used to spend most of my time straining to be a nice guy so people would like me."

The Anatolian smile may be a sort of racial tic, but after his arrival in the United States (at age four), it became a major tool of survival. His father, George—full name Kazanjioglou—was an old-world paterfamilias, demanding absolute obedience to his will in matters both great and small. One of George's brothers, whose story his nephew would eventually tell with candor, sympathy and irony in America, America, as well as in two novels, had preceded them and set up a carpet business, in which George joined him. By the l9zos, that business was prospering—though "Uncle Joe" had left it—and George and his family had moved to a fine suburban house. His father expected Elia and his brother to join him in the business-no questions asked or, for that matter, permitted.

But Kazan's mother, Athena, strong-minded and stubborn, had other ideas for him. She entered into a "conspiracy" (Kazan's word) with one of his high school teachers in New Rochelle to see if her bright lad could gain admission to a good college. They settled on Williams College, for no other reason, so far as Kazan could remember, except that its WASPy name appealed to them. He enthusiastically joined the conspiracy, working after school and on summer vacation to earn money for his tuition. When his father was informed of Elia's college acceptance, he struck his wife so hard that she was knocked to the floor. Shortly thereafter, they began sleeping in separate bedrooms.

The old man was—and remained—a frightening figure to Kazan. Many years later, Kazan's son Nicholas would recall that the only man he had ever seen his father fear was George Kazan, which Kazan himself admitted in his book. By the time Nick could observe the two men together his grandfather was a shrunken, silent figure, but still capable of making his famous son tremble.

It is worth observing that such characters, confident and bullying (until, generally, they got their comeuppance), became staples in all Kazan's work. They are, symbolically, fascist tyrants ruling the little nations—fractious, rebellious, struggling for democratic emergence-that is the family in so many of his dramas.

That someday he would make such use of his own family's drama had not entered Kazan's mind when his parents deposited him, wearing a boxy, itchy blue serge suit, on the idyllic Williams campus in the fall of 1926. It did not occur to him at any time in the four subsequent years, which were anything but idyllic to Kazan. He was obliged to supplement his savings by waiting tables at fraternity houses where, amid the well-born and well-favored, he was patronized when he was noticed at all. He yearned for the frat boys' dates, the lithe, blond girls he served meals, but he was only comfortable with small, dark, intense young women. He also wanted to be smooth and articulate like their handsome swains.

But often he would go days without speaking—a swarthy, runty, big-nosed outsider, nursing a new set of resentments. "It . . . made me rebellious. It also made me join the Communist Party at a certain time because I got resentful of being excluded. I was an outsider . . . but I also was sympathetic with people that were struggling to get up, because I struggled to get up."

Excerpted from "Elia Kazan: A Biography" by Richard Schickel. Copyright © 2006 by Richard Schickel. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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