Larger-than-life Kazan captured in fine print

Updated: Nov 20 2005, 06:49am hrs
A new biography of Elia Kazan is startling by its very existence. As film critic Richard Schickel knows, Kazans 1988 A Life - a whirlwind, as Schickel describes it - remains arguably the best show-business memoir ever written; certainly it is the most wrenching and reflective. And it arrived late in its authors creative life. Kazan died two years ago.

Since then, very little has changed, least of all rigid opinions about Kazans having named names during his 1952 testimony before the House UN-American Activities Committee. Schickel felt the heat of that controversy when he participated in the 1999 presentation of an honorary Academy Award to Kazan. Film Director Elia Kazan to Receive Oscar, Forgiveness read the headline on a bitter article in The Los Angeles Times. Much of this so-called forgiveness, Schickel felt, was being bestowed by good-hearted, liberal-minded show folks who had no understanding of the left-sectarian battles that had shaped the politics of their trade.

These people might more easily mimic the tactics of Stalinism than fathom the impact of those tactics on the arrogant and headstrong young Kazan.

A Life is a much more intimate, chatty and disarming book than this one. It is also shockingly revelatory - more about the mans private life than his politics in ways that Schickel, who only compresses and paraphrases, cannot capture. Schickels ver- sion is more measured, businesslike. It is weighed down by endless synopses of projects by Kazan.

The summaries are interspersed with new evaluations of what is often ancient history. Not surprisingly, he summons work from Kazans incomparable directorial winning streak, running from the late 1940s into the 50s including A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman and On the Waterfront more easily than he exhumes the early flops.

Schickels tone is even and measured, with occasional harrumphing or it would seem to underscore its authority. He can sound terribly lofty, as when he dismisses three pillars of the Group Theater Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford as rather troubled and marginal theatrical idealists. He can also sound superfluous, since much has already been written about the Group and its offshoot, the Actors Studio, collaborative efforts in which Kazan played pivotal roles.

This part of the book is as curated as it is composed. As for original reviews of Kazans projects, Schickel marvels at how obtuse they could be.

This book is at its most engaged as Schickel analyzes the import of Kazans Congressional appearance. Schickel is coolly logical as he makes a number of extremely persuasive points; he is also patronizing and dismissive in ways that undermine his own arguments.

Richard Schickel; HarperCollins Publishers; $29.95; Pp 510
Schickel makes the following unhelpful points: that Kazan gave names that were already known to the committee, that two of the individuals were dead and that Kazan hurt himself more than others.America, Schickel maintains, is a forgiving country. He thinks that a less defiant Kazan might have been forgiven as readily as an addict returning from rehab. There will always be those who vehemently disagree. But Schickels larger point is compelling, even when gratingly expressed. Kazan matured; his politics changed; he began to see real danger in the totalitarian tactics at work.

Schickel finds it unreasonable to condemn Kazan and finds it ludicrous that Kazans later work offers any form of crypto-apology.

That films hero, Terry Malloy, winds up defying murderous gangsters. I have tried to understand how informing on them can be regarded as immoral in any sense, Schickel writes, although there have been many claims to this effect, and I cannot do so.

New York Times