Entertainment

The Selected Letters Of Elia Kazan

by Lewis Whittington
Contributor
Thursday Apr 24, 2014
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In his time, Elia Kazan was the most influential director of his generation, collaborating with the most gifted actors, writers and designers on the stage and in film. He brought innovative techniques and introduced a new realism to acting, as well as dramatizing socially relevant themes to American audiences. No other director moved so fluently and successfully between Broadway and Hollywood. "The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan," a new collection, reveals so much about the director, his times and his art.

Kazan started out as a successful actor with the famed Group Theater in New York during the Depression. Even in his early years in Hollywood, he was taking on movie moguls for whom he worked as a means to a money end for his stage productions.

Kazan wrote copious letters to everyone with whom he was professionally involved, including top stars like Marlon Brando. The most intimate and candid are those to his first wife Molly Kazan and his children. He doesn’t hide that fact that he has affairs with other women, nor his failures as a family man. Mostly, though, these letters concern the creative circumstances bringing such celebrated plays as "Death of A Salesman," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" to the stage and in Hollywood, his major films including "On the Waterfront," "East of Eden," "Splendor in the Grass" and his screen version of "Streetcar."

His letters to studio heads about censorship of his material and to the Catholic League of Decency not to condemn his films are fascinating snapshots of the mores of the times. Much has been written about Kazan’s cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings where he infamously named names of known industry communists. Kazan is self-righteous in his own defense in a few of the letters. He seemed to immediately move on from the fallout.

Of interest to gay readers is Kazan working and personal relationship with Williams, the top dramatist of the era. Elia was comfortable enough to talk to ’Tenn’ about structural problems in his play "Camino Real" and tell him to get his lover Frank Merlo out of the room, so he could concentrate on rewrites.

The letters are all outgoing correspondence from Kazan -- the replies are not among these pages -- but the editors Albert and Marlene Delvin adroitly fill in any specific details to contextualize or explain, in between each entry. Although general background of American theater might be required, for anyone with an interest in this seminal period in theater and movies, this is an intimate reportage from one of the top insiders.


"The Selected Letters Of Elia Kazan"
Edited by Albert J Delvin and Marlene J. Delvin
Knopf, $40, hardcover, 672 pg., photos

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.

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