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Book Review: Kazan on Directing by Elia Kazan

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When you talk about the great directors of the middle of the twentieth century, whether of the stage or the cinema, one name is bound to come up, Elia Kazan. After all, this is the man who was responsible for iconic productions of modern American classics like Death of a Salesman on stage, On the Waterfront on the screen and A Streetcar Named Desire on both. He worked not only with playwrights like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, but others like William Inge, Thornton Wilder, and Archibald MacLeish. He directed Brando and James Dean, Vivien Leigh and Jessica Tandy, Lee J. Cobb and Raymond Massey, and, well too many others to mention. So any book that gathers together his analysis of his individual works, his thoughts and advice about the directing process, and his characterizations and evaluations of those he worked with is bound to be a gold mine for anyone concerned with the art of directing.

Kazan on Directing is just such a gold mine. Edited with scholarly care and erudition by Robert Cornfield, it collects original material about each of Kazan's major productions from interviews, his production notes, journals, and letters to collaborators. It provides insights into the way he went about analyzing the work he was directing, the way he worked with actors and playwrights, and the values he sought to communicate to his audience. The book is neither a systematic presentation of a coherent aesthetic, nor a practical guide for the student director. What it is, is a miscellany of bits and pieces, a hint here and a suggestion there, and every once in awhile an aphoristic precept or two about how to go about the business of directing thrown in for good measure.

So, for example, the director's first job, he tells the reader, is to find a 'center' or 'spine' of a play to give his direction "organic unity." The 'spine' of Arthur Miller's All My Sons "has something to do with how to live in this age and in this civilization." The spine of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth is to "show with pride the lasting power of the human race." Within the spine of the play, each character has his own or her own spine. In A Streetcar Named Desire for example, Stella's spine "is to hold on to Stanley;" Mitch's spine is to escape his mother's control. It is necessary for the director to get the actor to find the spine of his character on his own, but he must make sure that the spine the actor finds is the one the director has determined is there. The director is always manipulating, always in control.

Directorial control is no less essential when shooting a movie. In one of the two lengthier pieces in the collection, "The Pleasures of Directing" (the skeleton of a more systematic approach to the subject that Kazan never got around to completing), he talks about the necessity for the director to enforce his own vision of the film on all his collaborators. The director should be willing to listen to other points of view, especially those of the technicians — the camera men, the costumers, the designers — but he must always have the last word. He must not allow commercial concerns to affect his decisions. He must not allow those who are financing the film to dictate what he does. He must demand final cut at all costs, even at the price of walking away from the project. As the editor notes, when Kazan's films began making money, he demanded control of all aspects of filming and he got it. When his films didn't do that well, he had trouble getting the kind of control he wanted.

Again and again, he mentions the fact that most people considered him an actor's director. In a sense this is true, often he was able to get memorable performances from his actors, but this was not always because he coddled them. The most important thing for a director is to cast the right actor for the part. He, himself, liked to look for actors who had something in their personality or life history that paralleled something in the character they were to play. He chose Ed Begley to play the father in All My Sons because he was a reformed alcoholic and his guilt over this mirrored the guilt of the father in the play. He liked Peggy Anne Garner in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because the young girl was experiencing pains and uncertainties in her real life which came through on the screen. When he found there was a real antagonism between Raymond Massey and James Dean on the set of East of Eden, he stoked it whenever he could, because it worked for what he wanted on the screen. On the other hand, when it came to Marlon Brando, he says it was best to let him work things out on his own. The best way to handle him was to leave hands off.

Kazan on Directing is an incisive look into the mind and method of a theatrical genius. The more the reader knows about Kazan's films and plays, the more meaningful this look will be, but an encyclopedic knowledge of Kazan's work is not essential. The editor manages to provide an abundance of background material to make everything in the volume intelligible to even the least knowledgeable of readers. There is an introduction, a critical afterword, a chronology, and there are editorial introductions and interpolations for each of the individual entries. This is a book that belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in the stage or the cinema from the professional to the novice, the actors on the stage and members of the audience.

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