The Books: “Elia Kazan: A Life” (Elia Kazan)

Daily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir:

Elia Kazan: A Life, by Elia Kazan

I met Elia Kazan once. It was in 1999 and I was working on a show at the Actors Studio. It was a production of Awake and Sing, by Clifford Odets, (excerpt here) and it had had its original Broadway production in 1935 under the auspices of the influential Group Theatre (formed by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford). The Group was committed to socially relevant drama, the development of new plays, and the creation of an acting ensemble along the lines of the Moscow Art Theatre. As opposed to being an actor who has to turn himself into a commodity, and sell himself from job to job … the Group would be a place where actors had a permanent home (and salary, of course – no small thing in any time, but a huge thing in the midst of the Great Depression) and had a vested interest in the actual acting company (something which could not exist in the more capitalistic structure of the rest of Broadway, where you came in, did your job, and left). Most countries have some kind of national theatre. America never has. The Group gave it their best shot – and while they only lasted a decade, the reverberations of the Group are still felt today. Out of the Group Theatre came Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, John Garfield, Franchot Tone, Morris Carnovsky, Clifford Odets and Elia Kazan- to name just a few. Many of them became the primary teachers of the new style of acting that swept the country in the 40s and 50s – and were responsible for creating the Actors Studio, a safe haven where people could come and work and learn – without the stresses of commercial considerations. It is free. All you have to do is be a member. You have to audition to get in. But once you’re in, you’re in for life. There is a direct line from the Group to the Actors Studio – and while Kazan was always a controversial figure (first, because of his overweening ambition and ruthlessness – which he ascribes to his Greek-Turkish beginnings, and his experience as a member of a hard-working conniving immigrant family … and secondly, because of his behavior in front of the HUAC, a shadow which – in my opinion – unfairly tainted his reputation forever) he was highly instrumental in both of these organizations (although the Actors Studio, to this day, tries to deny Kazan’s part in its formation … it’s like they want to just ignore how important he was or something.)

Awake and Sing is the story of a raucous Jewish family living in the Bronx during the Great Depression – it ran for 184 performances and was a big hit – the people in the play talked like the people in real life! It was a revelation at the time, when playwrights like Kaufman & Hart and Philip Barry (awesome as they are) dominated the stage.

Elia Kazan had not performed in the original Awake and Sing. His big moment in Odets had come a year earlier when he was part of the sensation that was Waiting for Lefty (he was the one who began the call to “Strike”) – and later, he played Kewpie to great success in Paradise Lost – but as I mentioned earlier, the Group was an ensemble. Everyone worked on every production, to some capacity. Kazan garnered his nickname “Gadge” from the word “gadget” – because he was your go-to guy if you needed something fixed – whatever it was. The stage curtain won’t close! Gadge’ll fix it. This scene isn’t working! Let’s talk to Gadge – he’ll have ideas. The publicity for this play SUCKS! Gadge will make sure the problem is rectified. In many ways, “Gadge” was far too big a personality for an ensemble setting. He always bucked under that sort of discipline. The group dynamic was never for him, although he was a superb collaborator.


But the consensus-building that has to happen in any effective group, as well as the submission to a Leader (which turned out to be Lee Strasberg) … Kazan didn’t do well with any of that. Not to mention the fact that his Communist activities, sincere as they were, eventually (and quickly) soured for him – because the Communist Party wanted to own the Group Theatre, wanted to plan their season, and critique their choice of plays … “No, this play is too bourgeois”, etc. … and Kazan just flat out did not like that. Don’t tell us what art we should put up.

In Awake and Sing, circa 1999, Anne Jackson (wife of Eli Wallach) played the lead, the matriarch. My job in the show was basically as her “girl Friday”. I ran lines with her, I got her tea, I ran errands, I sat in the audience at every rehearsal, I tried to make her life easier, whatever she needed. I guess I was also a “Gadge”, in terms of my role with Anne Jackson. Katherine Wallach (Eli and Anne’s daughter – or, one of their daughters) played the romantic lead. Really nice woman, very laidback, humorous, I very much liked her energy. A guy I had dated for about 2 seconds was in the show, and he played the wild-card wise-cracking guy who was in love with Katherine’s character. The rest of the cast was filled with Actors Studio legends. The show wasn’t particularly good, but God, I loved the atmosphere.

It opened in the late fall – November. The Actors Studio was renting a theatre on 42nd Street for some reason (normally all of their shows were put on at their church/performance space on 45th Street – where they had been located since the 50s) – and rehearsals, which had started at the Studio, then moved into the new theatre. The production was a big deal for the Studio, far more elaborate than many of their other productions … and it was rumored that Kazan would attend. He was quite ill by this point, and almost completely deaf – but he was a good friend of one of the actors in the show (the father, coincidentally, of the dude I had dated for 2 seconds) – and due to Kazan’s early connection with the show, and the continuum feeling of the Group to the Studio to now … made it very exciting that he might show up.

Kazan’s contributions to the theatre (as opposed to film) are too great to name. He directed more plays than movies – his resume is astonishing. He was responsible for ground-breaking productions of plays by Arthur Miller. He was the main interpreter of Tennessee Williams. An interesting combination of personalities there. Tenneessee: a sensitive gay man from the south, and Elia, a fiery macho Greek-American, born in Istanbul. A tough scrappy immigrant. But I’ve said it before here, and I’ll say it again: I think that without Elia Kazan’s strong sensitive guidance, Williams’ plays might have crumbled into fairy dust. Inconsequential. Now the writing was all there – Kazan said that all along – that when he first read the scripts, they were complete. Done. Ready to go. (This is extremely rare, by the way, when you’re working on a new play. But Williams’ plays arrived on Kazan’s doorstep perfect). But Williams’ plays have so much to do with artifice, and the fragility of memories … that if you get a director who tries to deal with the delicacy TOO much, or if you get a director who just suffuses the entire play in a certain mood of nostalgia then the plays don’t add up to much. But Kazan always went for the jugular. He grounded the things, yet he also elevated them into theatricality, highlighting the symbolism of the plays, making them manifest, tangible. Kazan brought out the animal passion in Williams’ plays – knowing that the other stuff would take care of itself, or could be handled through lighting and music. But the acting needed to be visceral, real, taut … Williams’ plays burst onto the scene like an emissary from another planet. American theatre has never truly recovered. Any playwright who comes after now has to deal with the bar that Williams (and, by association, Kazan) set.

Kazan took those plays, already perfect, and heightened the reality of them – made the reality dramatic – and turned them into American icons. Kazan always said that good acting was “turning psychology into behavior” – and frankly he was a master at it (not as an actor – he was quite limited as an actor – he has said, “I was like a violinist who could only play 2 or 3 notes” – but as a director and dramaturg). He understood psychology on an almost cellular level and to “turn it into behavior” was the actor’s job, but he set up an atmosphere where such miracles became commonplace. It was easier for some (Marlon Brando – whose entire talent was turning psychology into behavior – he did it naturally – Kazan has said he never directed Brando. All he had to do with Brando was get the hell out of the way) – but to this day nobody can touch Kazan for the consistently great and memorable performances he got out of actors. Like James Dean falling down his father’s chest, holding up the money and letting it fall … That is a prime example of “turning psychology into behavior”. Psychology would have led Dean to perhaps tears … you know, he’s sad his father doesn’t love him, etc … but it was Dean’s sudden genius that led him to try to press the money into his father’s chest, and when he didn’t get a reaction, to slowly collapse, like a broken swooning bird. It takes the moment and turns it theatrical.


I have written before about when I first saw East of Eden at the age of 12 – it went off like a bomb through my psyche. I can say without exaggeration that it changed the course of my life. Not immediately – but all roads lead to that movie. I don’t even think now (in retrospect) that it is Kazan’s best – but at the time, when I was 12, already interested in acting – it showed me something I had never seen before. It wasn’t that I found the story touching, or the acting good (although all that was true as well) – it was that it galvanized me, for the first time. It put me in action. If the action wasn’t as dramatic as running away and joining the circus, it was still action. I set about on a course of trying to learn everything I could about Kazan, Dean, and – once I learned about it – the Actors Studio. It became a vortex, almost – or some kind of swirling motion in my life – where everything revolved around it. I was hooked. Forever. And look at me now. I’m middle-aged now. And look at what I write about on my blog almost non-stop. It started then – one random night when I was babysitting and I watched East of Eden. It’s a direct line.

It wasn’t just about having a crush on James Dean. I wanted to know how that type of acting had come about – who was responsible for it??? – and so of course I read everything I could get my hands on about Kazan (or “Gadge”, as I called him in my mind – because, you know, we were just BFFs by that point) … I loved the Kazan stories. I tried to picture myself in his hands, as an actress. What would be my struggles? What small helpful thing would he whisper in my ear to help me nail a moment? What was he like? The later controversies meant nothing to me … if anything, it just made me sad that he was so hated, because I had such affection for his work itself. It had changed me. I would never look at movies (or acting) the same way again.

I know I’m talking a lot about myself in this post, but whatever, Kazan brings it out of me. (I also think it’s funny when people have made “God, you’re so self-centered – don’t you care about what’s happening in Abu Gharib??” comments on my blog in the past. Uhm, yeah. I am self-centered. Blogging is probably the most self-centered hobby that one can have. It is WHY I do it because I enjoy talking about what interests me. Is that your only comment?? Or do you have something else to say that, you know, makes sense? No?) Kazan is part of the warp and weft of my life – he was there when I first “got it”, when I realized what I wanted to do with my life, when I discovered the passion …

So to think that I might be about to meet the man … Ack. I don’t do well in those situations. I saw Gena Rowlands on the street once. She is my favorite actress of all time. I did not approach. In fact, I slinked around behind her like a stalker, watching her every move, memorizing her shoes, her bag, her sunglasses … but I would have needed to have a bone marrow transplant in order to stroll up to her and ask for her autograph. I just can’t do it. (Or … I can … but only if you PUSH me to it, like the time I whored myself out for The Rock’s autograph.)

I was scared, though. What do you say to someone like Kazan? “I can’t describe how much your work has meant to me.” “You opened my eyes to art, to the craft of acting …” “You are part of the warp and weft of my very existence.” Loony tunes.

At the same time, during the entire rehearsal process, hanging out at the Actors Studio, lying across the chairs during a long tech rehearsal, running out to the corner deli for a coffee, sitting backstage in the dark listening to the run-thru going on … I’d have these moments of – almost like my vision went from microscopic to macroscopic … My perception would pull way way way back and I’d suddenly realize where I was, who I was hanging out with (people who knew Kazan well, who considered him a friend), and also just … how casual it all was … I would forget, from time to time, where I was … and suddenly, I’d have one of those telescope moments and I’d think of that 12 year old girl, imagining herself into the Actors Studio in its heyday – with Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, Carroll Baker, Shelley Winters, Marlon Brando … and I’d get overwhelmed. Even though I was just a glorified stage manager and not a lead actress, I’d tear up. “Sheila. You did it. That 12 year old girl saw this. She knew it would happen. She was planning for it … and here you are!”


Kazan’s autobiography came out in 1988 and it is a massive tome – heavy and thick as a biography of Napoleon. It’s enormous. My friend Shelagh (who I also met through the Actors Studio, who is a director) has said that any time she feels stuck in her work, or like she needs a breakthrough in how she’s thinking about a certain script or problem … she’ll pick up Kazan’s autobiography and open it randomly, to any page, and just read. It’s that full of insight and wisdom. Naturally, most of the press that the book got circled around the “naming names” controversy and Kazan’s apologia for it – but that makes up a tiny tiny section of the book. The rest of it is a treatise on the creative life, on script analysis, on the actors he knew and worked with … The stature of the book has just grown in years. It’s not that Kazan will ever be able to shake off the controversy … but the autobiography is now, generally, considered to be a highwater mark in the genre and rightly so. You can’t believe how much is in it. I found him to be refreshingly honest, as well. Honest about his infidelities, about his problems as a director – how he found his way … and also refreshingly humble about his successes. He will not take credit for On the Waterfront – or at least he won’t take credit for Brando. The best moments in that film (the glove moment, the taxi cab) were Brando’s inventions … and Kazan always gives credit where credit is due.


The same with Tennessee Williams. Kazan did not “create” those plays – the productions were legendary … but Kazan is always clear that the writing was there from the moment he got the scripts. All he had to do was create the correct environment and production design – and cast well – in order to bring the script to life.

The book is a masterpiece, it really is.

Awake and Sing opened on a snowy night in December. I had been at the theatre all day, running errands, taking care of Anne Jackson, running out to grab her a sandwich, whatever … and then it was time for the show. The audience slowly came in – brushing off the snow, stamping their feet … There was a feeling of anticipation and excitement in the air. The audience that night was mainly made up of Actors Studio luminaries. Ellen Burstyn was there (and she remembered me from the workshop I had taken with her – woman was amazing … I had been one face in that class of 30 people and she remembered me – astonishing) – Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were there – Harvey Keitel showed up – it was all really fun and exciting to mingle around in the lobby with these people. But the question on my mind (and everyone else’s) was: will Kazan show??

5 minutes before the curtain went up, Kazan entered the lobby. He was surrounded by good friends, who hovered around him, and had obviously made sure he had gotten there intact (he was incredibly old and frail) … He was holding onto a friend’s arm, and he had a strange little smile on his face … as though he knew (to his dismay) that he would be the center of attention … couldn’t help that … and because it was a relatively cool crowd (I was so not cool, but I tried to take my cue from others) … people either left him his space, or went over to say a casual, “Hi, Gadge, how are you tonight?” I wasn’t in that league at all. I’ve been around famous people before – hell, there are famous people in my family – I’m not all that gobsmacked by famous people in and of themselves … but the second I saw Kazan, my knees almost went. I’m serious – I felt a dip in my energy, a swoon, like I was going to go down just at the sight of him. I couldn’t take it. I just STARED at him … and there was something about his age, and his disorientation (did he even know where he was?) that cut through me like a hot laser and I couldn’t take it … I left the premises and went sneaking backstage to see if Anne needed anything before the curtain went up.

I sat in the audience during the show. Kazan was in the front row. He was quite deaf, so I’m not sure how much he heard (there were definitely “projection” problems in the show … you couldn’t hear a lot of the actors). I could barely keep my eyes on the stage. I kept glancing over at him. He was a small hunched figure, so reduced from his virile masculinity that marked him at the height of his career, and it just killed me to see him. I wasn’t pitying him … it was just that I looked at him and was conscious of how much his work has meant to me, and how it impacted me … and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I sat there with tears streaming down my face in the dark – not because of Awake and Sing, but because of that small old man in the front row.

Kazan! Holy Christ!!

After the show, there was a reception in the lobby, with cheap jugs of wine and plastic cups. The cast joined the party, and it was like an old-timey reunion there … with Newman chatting with Anne Jackson, Eli Wallach was there to see his wife and daughter perform … I basically hung around on the sidelines, gulping down the glorified grape juice that was being served … and tried to keep my knees from trembling. Kazan was standing over to the side with his friend who had been in the production (and the friend’s son – who had also been in the production – the guy I had dated for 2.3 seconds) … and that was my chance. Sheila. Don’t be an ass. You can’t be within 5 feet of Elia freakin’ Kazan and not say something to him. Even if it comes out awkward and weird, that would be better than saying nothing. Don’t be an ass. This isn’t about fawning over him. This is about acknowledging him TO HIS GODDAMN FACE for what he has meant to you. Do it! Do it!

(In a humorous aside, when I went to Taos last fall to basically stalk Dean Stockwell on his home turf – I went through a similar thing. Stevie and I were at the art gallery opening – where Stockwell’s work was being shown – and everyone was hanging out outside, there was a band playing, Stockwell was dancing, it was awesome – but … but … I so wanted to have my picture taken with Stockwell … I had already been introduced to him … and there were plenty of other people there who would politely ask if they could have their picture taken with Stockwell and he was gracious in complying … so why couldn’t I??? Thank GOD for Stevie. Stevie literally – literally – pushed me over towards Stockwell … grabbed my camera and said, “Mr. Stockwell, could I take a picture of you with my friend Sheila??” Stockwell said, “Sure”, put his arm around me, and Stevie took the picture. And I wasn’t a pain in the ass, and Stockwell wasn’t annoyed … he was gracious, I was polite … it was part of being a celebrity, and he was very cool with it. But still: it’s not easy for me!!)

So without getting myself together, without calming myself down, I walked over to the threesome in the corner of the lobby: Kazan, old guy who was his friend, young guy who was the dude I dated … and the dude I dated glanced at me, really friendly, and said, “Hi, Sheila!” I said, “Hi” – dude I dated turned to Kazan and said, loudly, “Elia, this is Sheila O’Malley.” Kazan reached out his hand to me, and I took it – and found myself saying, “Thank you. Thank you so much for your work.” I don’t think I spoke loud enough. Kazan held onto my hand, shaking it, and his eyes were not locked onto my eyes – his eyes were staring at my mouth, trying to lipread. He looked a little bit disoriented. I hoped that my energy at least made it clear what I was saying, But I wasn’t sure … He just shook my hand, in an obligatory manner, and watched my mouth speak.

I then backed off – not wanting to just hang on to the periphery … especially because Kazan seemed rather overwhelmed, like he was in his own little world … and I wasn’t a part of it … everyone else there that night was an old friend … and I just felt really aware of his age, and his struggling to keep up … It had been a huge production to get him out, on that blizzardy night … he didn’t just hop in a taxi by himself and come to the Studio … so I backed off, made my rounds to say goodbye to the cast (I would see them all the next night anyway) and went out into the snowy night. There was an empty doorway a couple of doors down … and I went and sat on the steps, out of the snow, put my head in my hands, and cried. It felt good to finally let it all out. Enough of hanging out and drinking Julio Gallo from the jug and pretending I’m “over” the fact that Elia Kazan, the man responsible for so much in my own life, is standing just over there. It was good to relax. I cried for about 15, 20 minutes, and then got myself together and trudged through the gathering snow to catch my bus home.

Kazan died 3 years later.


I wanted to choose an excerpt that shows his smarts about acting, and what it was that actors need. I decided to go with the following – which, in keeping with the tone and theme of my post, is an Actors Studio-themed excerpt – having to do with the Group, the Method – and all of the different teachers who came out of the Group … having all interpreted the Method in their own particular ways.

Elia Kazan: A Life, by Elia Kazan

The Group Theatre came apart in 1936, reassembled in an altered form in 1937, dissolved completely in 1940. It was then that the actors and directors out of that experience began to teach what they’d learned. Today, as I write this, there are schools of acting everywhere proclaiming variants of a central viewpoint, the Method. By a curious irony, the rebels of the thirties and forties have become the establishment of the day. No one says, “You have it or you don’t” now; they say, “Come to me, I’ll make you a star.”

Nearly every star today is claimed by one acting teacher or another; there are long lists of their “pupils” in the trade paper. It’s difficult to have a conversation with Robert Lewis without hearing him mention Henry Winkler, an old pupil, or drop the name of Meryl Streep, a more recent one. It’s a natural pride; architects point to their buildings. But now the thing is out of hand. Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame is dead; his place of business continues franchised, a syndication. Lee Strasberg is dead; his place of business continues. The right to speak his name is bought – at a fat price.

There are yards of books that will instruct the beginning student on how it’s done, and how it has been done. Read all about it! The Stanislavki system made easy! I have a shelf of these manuals, but I’ve found that information rarely helps an actor; training does. Even those books written by close friends have bored me, although perhaps that was mostly because I’ve spent so many years listening to dogma on the subject. I cannot believe that an actor should be instructed while sitting in a comfortable chair listening to a “guru”. The last class I taught (I mean the last, for I shan’t teach again), I didn’t let the actors sit down for two hours. They did the exercises I chose on their feet and found this exhilarating. The sight of actors perched row on row as magistrates passing verdicts on one another’s work raises my hound hairs. When I hear the phrase “master class”, I want to vomit.

Today when I’m consulted by an eager newcomer about whom to “go to for help”, I generally answer that I can’t offer advice unless and until I know more about him – which I make damned sure I don’t have time to do. I shudder at the thought of giving quick counsel on the Art of the Theatre, on what will “get you there”. Yes, the experience of other actors and directors can be communicated and does help, but on the whole it’s better for a young actor, driven by a strong desire, to stumble, fall, pick up, come on again, so find his way. What I do sometimes say is that choosing a teacher is like settling on a lover, one size doesn’t fit all. Strasberg, the most famous and financially successful teacher of our day, helped some people – Al Pacino and Ellen Burstyn swear by him. Other, equally excellent actors abominate him. Stella Adler, a spirited and flamboyant teacher who emphasizes characterization and role interpretation rather than emotional recall, came to her class the morning after Lee died and ordered them all to stand. “A man of the theatre died last night,” she announced. For one minute, the members of her group, a large one, stood, some with heads bowed, all silent. Then Miss Adler ordered them to sit and said, “It will take a hundred years before the harm that man has done to the art of acting can be corrected.”

This certainly seems excessive, and I don’t know precisely what Stella was referring to. I think she might finally admit, with some nudging, that she learned a great deal from Lee in the Group’s first years. I can speak for myself, despite the negative impressions I formed more recently, I owe Lee a great deal and owe to the movement Harold and he started, the Group Theatre, everything. Because I was an actor – and could not possibly have been one without their help or outside their theatre – I’ve learned never to be afraid of actors, so I’ve never treated them, when I was making films, as counters in a game to be moved about as I pleased. I’ve never wished them struck dumb, always opened myself to their imaginations and benefited from their suggestions. I’ve been able to remain undisturbed by the questioning that other directors resent. Even with the novels I’ve been writing – if they had one special quality, it’s that the dialogue sounds as if it were spoken. I learned from having been an actor.

I do have differences with my old friends and associates. No one who came out of the Group and now teaches does it precisely the same way or with the same emphasis. Sanford Meisner, Robert Lewis, Stella Adler, and Paul Mann have all helped actors become artists. I know for the best of reasons; I’ve worked with “their” actors in films. But they are each extremely individual in their work and I’ve heard all four scorned by their own kind. Acting teachers tend to disparage each other’s methods, and I’ve thought I detected here and there a hint of jealousy of Strasberg’s financial success. As in other human endeavour in the arts, there is a fascinating variety. But despite that, the teachers I’ve mentioned make the same basic emphasis, which is fundamental: Experience on the stage must be actual, not suggested by external imitation; the actor must be going through what the character he’s playing is going through; the emotion must be real, not pretended; it must be happening, not indicated.

That’s our word for heresy: To indicate is the cardinal sin of acting. Yet even this is open to question. Some great actors imitate the outside and “work in” from there. Laurence Olivier, for one. Larry needs to know first of all how the person he’s to play walks, stands, sits, dresses; he has to hear in his memory’s er the voice of the man whom he’s going to imitate. I lived across the street from him at the time I was directing his wife, Vivien Leigh, in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire, and would often drop over to see him. Larry was working with Willy Wyler on Sister Carrie and, as ever, concentrating on what might seem to ‘us” to be insignificant aspects of his characterization. I remember pausing outside a window late one Sunday morning and, undetected, watching Larry go through the pantomime of offering a visitor a chair. He’d try it this way, then that, looking at the guest, then at the chair, doing it with a host’s flourish, doing it with a graceless gesture, then thrusting it brusquely forward – more like Hurstwood that way? – never satisfied, always seeking the most revealing way to do what would be a quickly passing bit of stage business for any other actor.

Including for us, of the Group. We would work on the actor’s disposition at the time of the visit, what Hurstwood feels toward his guest and what he wants to accomplish in the scene that’s to follow. Having determined these – no, I’ll put it correctly: Having expereinced these, that is to say, having found them within ourselves, we’d trust that the detail of how the chair is offered would take care of itself.

Does it? Not always. Which way is better? As in all art, both. There is content and there is form. The artistry is in the passion; it is equally in the way the passion is expressed. Perhaps the problem we have to deal with is how to create an expressive form within which the spontaneous life, the one that yields the unexpected, the dazzling surprise, is free to work. The greatest actors are known for giving the same performance a little differently each night – but it is the same performance in all essentials. Both techniques are important: turning your emotional resources on and off, this way and that, while at the same time directing the cunning of your body to the most telling external behavior.

The technique of exhuming intense buried passions by arousing associations, what is known as “emotional recall” is no longer esoteric. We know all about Proust’s madeleine and what it engendered. We are familiar with the glandular behavior of Pavlov’s dog. To believe that true acting centers around that psychological trick – a teacher’s delight in showing off, because it never fails to impress beginners – tends to make acting a competition as to which actor can produce the greatest emotional show. That is not important, nor is it the Method, which is concerned with the reason the character is on stage and what he wants to – and is able to – do there within the circumstances of the scene. The people of the Actors Studio are often criticized, as were the Group actors, for reducing acting to a display of emotional fireworks rather than playing the scene correctly within its true limits.

The problem of form is still the problem and applies as much to the insides as it does to the externals. Emotions differ; they have different qualities; they are part of a characterization; they are specific. We don’t feel alike, nor do we all always feel at top pitch. “In life” most of us conceal our feelings, don’t want them to be seen; many actors I know, especially Lee Strasberg’s pupils, brandish these emotions as if they were the only true measure of talent. The basic problem of artistic control is the problem of having the emotion and giving it its most appropriate expression. This problem cannot be slighted in acting any more than it can be in painting or music. The great Russian directors of their classic period – before the Revolution fell to earth – Vakhtangov, Meyerhold, and even, at the end of his days, Stanislavski, were dealing with this problem: form.

I recently staged an adaptation of the Oresteia with a cast made up of actors from the Actors Studio, and although they were devoted and worked hard, although they were attractive people for whom I felt affection, they had, almost without exception, poor speech. It was, and still is, parochial and even ethnic, “off the streets,” perfect for On the Waterfront. The unconscious premise of all too many of them was: If I have the emotion, that is all I need. They’d been trained by Lee Strasberg. I watched some who had very small parts, walk-ons, prepare in a daze for minutes before they entered, then do nothing original on stage. Al the people who came out of the Group still have to answer the challenge put to them so often, with justice: Why have American actors not succeeded in the classics? Why have these plays, the greatest in our libraries, been left to the English for realization? There is much work for actors in this country.

Much work for directors too. I’ve twice tried to deal with a “classic” and both times failed disastrously. The plain fact is that I’ve had no training or experience to prepare me for such a task. There was no tradition here in this country from which I might have learned, not in my time. There surely must be some way of combining what the Group had with the glories of a stage devoted to the verse plays of the great dramatists.

One final word on this subject. There is a power the actual experience genuinely felt by an actor has that, when merely simulated or cleverly suggested, it does not have. You can see it in the greatest performances: Raimu, who, in The Baker’s Wife, looked less like an actor than like a baker, but whose enacted humiliations, those an aging man will encounter when he’s in love with a young woman, were so truly felt they shook me. Garbo in Camille, unsurpassable. What is her mystery? Her self. Judy Garland, at the end of her life, giving you flashes (by lightning, Hazlitt might have added, as he did of Kean) of her own life’s pain when she sang the pop-blues. Caruso and Callas, he with that great theatric voice, hers with one often criticized, both offering depth that made you forget any flaw. Bessie Smith, who made a league of all the down-and-outers in our society, sang for them all and for her race as well. Brando, naked of soul in On the Waterfront, the best performance I’ve ever seen by a man in films because it had all the tenderness and delicacy in love scenes that you could not have expected. And all those others: Anton Chekhov’s nephew Michael, Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Lee Cobb in Death of a Salesman before he “improved” his performance. And that great old Japanese actor Takashi Shimura in Kurosawa’s To Live. Those are some of the treasures of my life. You would name others. Now ask yourself why these performances – or your own list – live on in your memory, and others, equally praised, equally famous, do not.

My own opinion is that they do because the actors – whether by technique or by accident – gave you pieces of their lives, which is certainly the ultimate generosity of the artist, and they did it unabashed. You were the witness to a final intimacy. These artists spoke to your secret self, the one you hide. They offered you more than cleverness or technique: they gave you the genuine thing, the thing that hurt you as it thrilled you.

What made these distilled experiences awesome and unforgettable is that in these cases, a kind of fear is aroused – not in them but in you as you watch – a fear that may be the ultimate respect you, the viewer, can give in return. You find yourself unsure of what is going to happen next – or in the end. Will they last it out, will they come through? As in life, there are likely to be surprises that discomfort you. All leading men and women should have something unpredictable and dangerous about them. You should be anxious about what they might do; it could get out of hand. Didn’t Bogart have this? And Bette Davis? Will the leading man make love to his leading lady or will he strike her – Cagney. Who can plumb the mystery of Greta Garbo? She doesn’t yield, she doesn’t make friends, she’s not after your approval, not ever. Yes, there should be a persisting menace, even in heroes. They should be the opposite of housebroken, only partly tamed, not quite civilized. Immoderate.

Sitting out front or before your screen, you realize you’re witnessing a real event, one more real than life, for in “life” there are the limits of civilization – the police, for instance. In art there should be none. You should not know what the outcome will be. You watch apprehensively – as you did Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, which Bobby DeNiro played. In the company of those performers you should not feel safe, any more than you do walking through a Harlem slum street at night if you’re white, or driving over an African savannah in an open jeep as the sun sets and the predators begin to stir. You feel the immediacy that you experience when you watch a terrible encounter in life or read the first act of Richard III. You wish for the best, but you’re not sure it will come to pass. You hope, as you do when you enter Lear, that this greatest of the old men of the world will come out of his daze, even for a flash at the end – as Lear does – and for that instant see his life and the world clearly. When that happens, your own life has grown. What’s happened to people on stage or on the screen has happened to you.

That is the kind of acting to which I aspired.

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16 Responses to The Books: “Elia Kazan: A Life” (Elia Kazan)

  1. The Books: “Elia Kazan: A Life” (Elia Kazan)

    Next book on my “entertainment biography” shelf: Elia Kazan: A Life, by Elia Kazan I met Elia Kazan once. It was in 1999 and I was working on a show at the Actors Studio (in a backstage capacity). It was…

  2. MrG says:

    Great post. We read Kazan’s book in Chicago when it came out after much anticipation – yet another source of inspiration and information.

    It’s too bad what became of Actor’s Studio, or better said what didn’t become of Actor’s Studio. When the time came for change and the opportunities were there, those in charge were sadly short-sighted to the tradition and the possibilities, and/or perhaps too enamoured in careers and cognizant of the old relationships and attitudes.

    Your personal story in this post though is quite beautiful.


  3. red says:

    I always thought the infighting about “how” to teach acting and the ‘right’ way to use the Method was stupid (and also very annoying when you, the student, got caught in the crossfire) – because … what works for one person won’t work for another. I mean, duh. I struggled to “get” sensory work – it just didn’t act as the “spark” it was supposed to. What – am I gonna spend the rest of my life trapped in a chair trying to create a coffee cup? What a waste of talent and time.

    I’ve been in classes, too, where the teacher wants to OWN you … and I can’t stand that either.

    Kazan’s fair-ness here, I think, is admirable. You can tell he really, on some level, agrees with Adler that Strasberg was detrimental to many actors – yet at the same time, he credits him (and the Group) with giving him a chance as an actor, which would not have happened any place else.

    It’s a tough book – but really important, too.

    Thanks for your thoughts – it’s nice to hear from another person immersed in this tradition of Method acting and Group Theatre lore … so many people are like, “Huh??”

  4. Doc Horton says:

    Wow. Kazan talks about Takashi Shimura. I love Takashi Shimura. He plays that aged beaurocrat dying of stomach cancer in IKIRU (TO LIVE) and follows that two years LATER! with the portrayal of the robust, kind-hearted, supremely competent leader of THE SEVEN SAMURAI. Talk about polar opposite characters. What a great actor! He was even in GODZILLA. If I had a vote, he’d get a lifetime achievement Academy Award. It’s good to know Kazan’s ghost would probably second my nomination.

    Doc (

  5. red says:

    Oh, and MrG – since Paul Newman is the theme of the day – he was one of the ones who saw the way the Actors Studio was going and tried to infuse new life into it. The resistance from the rank-and-file was ferocious – I was at sessions when all those decrepit people who sat there day after day would openly scorn the new blood brought in … because they hadn’t worked with “Lee” or they did things a different way – a good friend of mine was the recipient of a lot of that scorn – Thankfully, he has kept working – and Lee Grant (now the main moderator) sees his gift – and he has had some stupendous experiences working there since she has taken over.

    But yes … going to the Studio in the mid 90s was like visiting a family member on life support. It was kind of sad.

  6. red says:

    Doc – thanks for the comment of appreciation of Shimura – it is wonderful when you read that someone is recognized for their contribution … There are people who have done truly extraordinary work, and how do we measure that? Box office success? Hell, no … but sometimes it’s hard to see past that.

    I also love that Kazan acknowledges Judy Garland – because I feel she is a genius, too.

  7. MrG says:

    One thing I have never bought into, and something that I always felt contributed in part to the disagreements, is the premise of the arguement or discussion that Kazan brings up in the excerpt regarding students from the Studio and Oresteia. He mentions that they can’t speak properly for such a play and that they didn’t do anything original on stage and because they had been trained by Lee they thought all that was needed was emotion. He tries to bring it to the point later that the teachers from the Group have to address this fact that Americans can’t do “classics.” The fact is none of these problems are particular, exclusive or specific to Americans, nor to Lee’s or anyone elses students.
    And I doubt any of those students working in the Studio at that point in time ever aspired to perform in Oresteia. They didn’t go to the studio to learn that. Every actor and director has to at some point decide conciously or not, where and how they are going to perform and why. You for example didn’t see a Kathakali performance when you were young and seek out that tradition of work – you saw East of Eden (I think) and sought that. This notion that Kazan implies, that all actors should be able to perform everything just isn’t really possible. That’s not an excuse for us not being “good” at Greek Tradgedy – we could do it if we put our energies to it. But we have reasons for seeking something else, often very personal ones and these require a specific kind of expression.
    The Studio (and the Group prior) had something no one else had in that regard.

    Your Newman tribute was excellent by the way.


  8. red says:

    Every actor and director has to at some point decide conciously or not, where and how they are going to perform and why.

    Marvelous insight!!! It never really occurred to me before – I guess I have the inferiority complex that many American actors have … but you are completely correct, I think. The American vernacular, the American style – is a powerful thing, and there is plenty there to keep us busy. When an actor can take that style – and pour it into a classic work – it is positively exhilarating … but again (like I mentioned in my comment about my struggles with sensory work) – to pour your focus into the wrong thing … to concentrate entirely on what is MISSING in the culture at large … is a waste of talent and resources.

    The Brits are notoriously cliched and awful at Tennessee Williams – yet they soar in things like Chekhov. Who can say why this is so?

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