Updated: Aug 7, 2020
The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan is an exceptionally intimate look inside the life and mind of director Elia Kazan, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, yet one that comes with an incredibly complicated legacy.
The collection features letters from his first known letter, written at age sixteen, all the way to some written within the last fifteen years of his life. The book is split into sections, tracing Kazan's early career in the Group Theatre to being a major success on Broadway, then his transition into film and the different phases of his life after that.
The letters range from highly personal correspondence between Kazan and his first wife, Molly Day Thacher, and his children to incredibly detailed professional letters to playwrights like Tennessee Williams about directing his script or sparring with a film studio head over a picture. All of the letters are provided with a few paragraphs of context afterward to explain the conditions surrounding the letter and relevant facts from Kazan's life pertaining to the content of the text.
Elia Kazan is one of the greatest directors of all time, that is a fact that is pretty much indisputable. It is hard to think of another director who has such a broad range of tremendous hits. On Broadway, you have tremendously prolific partnerships with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams that encompassed both playwrights' best works. In Hollywood, Kazan makes some of the best American movies ever made. Even just having On the Waterfront to your credit would make you memorable, but that is without even considering A Streetcar Named Desire, A Face in the Crowd, or any of a number of others. Yet discussing Kazan's legacy inevitably comes with an asterisk. He goes down in history as one of the House Un-American Activities Committee's cooperative witnesses, having named several of his former theatrical colleagues as members of the Communist Party.
Now, I could go on for quite a while about this particular topic, especially as it relates to Elia Kazan. My college thesis studied films of the Hollywood blacklist in the context of their creators' experience with HUAC, looking at High Noon and On the Waterfront. As such, I know a considerable amount about Kazan (and admittedly have a tremendous bias toward him), most especially with his HUAC experiences, but I will not go into that here. The least you need to know is that after an initial refusal, Kazan did provide the committee with names (all eight names he listed had actually already been provided to the committee), but despite public backlash from some, he never expressed remorse for doing so but remained firm in his conviction and his original reasons for cooperating with the committee. That decision and consequent defense of it makes Kazan an incredibly controversial figure. This controversy makes this an even more fascinating read. There are letters that show his deliberation about this decision, as well as numerous letters from after his testimony that show him defending this decision. It really is a fascinating historical document in that context.
Reading Kazan in his own words paints the picture of an incredibly complicated, unapologetic, brilliant, introspective man. I was consistently blown away by reading letters to Tennessee Williams where Kazan so abstractly yet effectively described issues with character development, conflict, or any number of other things he came across in reading a script he was to direct. This glimpse inside of his mind is unparalleled, to see how he perceived and realized scripts visually both on stage and on screen is a fascinating exercise for any film or theater lover. As a big fan of the Kazan/Arthur Miller partnership and the history behind it, it was a real treat to read letters from Kazan to Miller and to see Kazan talk about Miller to others. Additionally, the way that Kazan perceives and understands actors is unlike anything I have ever seen. There are passages where Kazan describes Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean and their acting styles in a way that rivals even the most romantic, brilliant poetry.
Jimmy is inventive and true. You're going to be surprised with him. I think. Amazingly he takes to movies like it was HIS medium. Like he owned it. None of the others do. Not Julie, not Jo, not even Ray Massey who's made a million. This kid acts for movies. He is like Jim Cagney or Spencer Tracy, except twenty three. He'll be a big star...
-Elia Kazan to wife Molly Day Thacher, July 5, 1954 (p. 266)
Kazan's unapologetic nature is the trait that is perhaps most pervasive throughout all of his letters. You can trace almost a straight line from his first letter to the last in this collection. He makes a decision and rarely ever goes back on it, whether it is a significant choice, such as cooperating with HUAC, or a smaller one, such as where to put a set piece for a play. He understood visual mediums so thoroughly and never apologized for the vision he had for any particular play or film. Sometimes this comes off pretty terribly, such as being very unapologetic when discussing his extramarital affairs in a letter to his wife. On the whole, though, this unapologetic streak manifests itself as a fierce individuality that Kazan fostered throughout his whole life. He would often reference his Greek ancestry and Turkish birth as being the cause of this individuality, and that immigrant identity is something he fought to reconcile with his American one throughout his whole life, presenting itself in events like his testimony before HUAC and the production of America, America. Regardless of what made Kazan so independent, you would be hard-pressed to call him fake. His no-nonsense approach to his art and his life creates an authenticity that is hard to deny. There is an unguarded nature to these letters that you miss in autobiographical works of Kazan's, such as A Life. In these letters, he puts on no front for the world. He is real, he is complicated, he is idealistic, he is unapologetic, he is human. At its core, this is such a deeply human read and that is really what makes The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan worth it. I would highly recommend it.
This book review is part of Raquel Stecher's Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge. Follow her on Twitter (@RaquelStecher) and check the hashtag #ClassicFilmReading to see reviews!