The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan edited by Albert J. Devlin with Marlene J. Devlin; Knopf, 647 pages ($40). Has there ever been a more misbegotten and forlorn Oscar for lifetime achievement than the one given to Elia Kazan in 1999? The old man was 90 at the time. On either side of him at the ceremony were living film monoliths Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro determined to shepherd the old man to his rightful homage no matter how many expressions of film community disgust there were. (The American Film Institute had previously refused to give him THEIR award for lifetime achievement, however many times over he deserved it.)
Scorsese and De Niro knew how many people in that room had no interest in Kazan’s gigantic influence or immense achievement in film AND theater. They were expressing with their contempt – some silent, some with shouts – their disgust at the most famous name-namer of them all, the man most renowned for preserving his career by giving the names of former communists he knew in the party in the mid-1930s to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The TV director of that year’s Oscars made sure we saw some unhappy faces in the crowd at the event – Amy Madigan and Nick Nolte, for instance, sitting in the audience registering an electric charge of disapproval you could practically feel on our side of the tube. And, in between Scorsese and De Niro was a frail and very old man they urged to see some other faces in the crowd – the people who know just how singular and influential his film achievement had been: “On the Waterfront,” “A Face in the Crowd,” “Baby Doll,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Splendor in the Grass,” ”East of Eden,” “Viva Zapata,” “Gentleman’s Agreement.” And that’s not even talking about his tidal espousal of the theatrical causes of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and the Actor’s Studio in American Theater.
A great and immensely powerful American life. (His autobiography “A Life” is exceptional.) But there it is here, dated April 9, 1952, the catapulting letter to the HUAC that split Elia Kazan’s legacy in two. He’s compelling here, manipulative, fascinating and absurdly self-delusional. An essential film book.
– Jeff Simon