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This story first appeared in the April 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Director Elia Kazan remains one of Hollywood’s most polarizing figures. He directed such classics as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955) and Splendor in the Grass (1961). The native New Yorker’s career began on the stage and, as such, Kazan was an actor’s director; he discovered Marlon Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty. He also loved writers and proved a nimble collaborator for such icons as Tennessee Williams and John Steinbeck.
But when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about being a member of the Communist Party in the ’30s, he “named names” — an act that drew scorn from some of his contemporaries and colored his career and his 1999 honorary Oscar (some of the attendees, like Kirk Douglas, steadfastly refused to applaud).
While a look at the correspondence he left when he died in 2003 at 94 — collected in The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan, out April 22 — can’t form a complete portrait of the man, it offers invaluable insight into the mind of one of the 20th century’s great cinematic artists.
He was a man who admitted to various marital infidelities, including one with Marilyn Monroe (“a touching pathetic waif”), recognized the appeal of Paul Newman (“plenty of power, insides and sex”), scolded Beatty for being a diva and fought tooth-and-nail with censors and studio heads to preserve his directorial vision. He was a man who loathed much about Hollywood — writing his wife, Molly Day Thacher, that he hated it “in a shrieking insane way. … It’s like the grave, the tomb, the charnel pit — except it’s all very fancy … full of really very fine people, all in various stages of decomposition, without knowing” — but came to Tinseltown anyway because that’s where movies are made.
Read more of Elia Kazan’s private letters:
Excerpted from THE SELECTED LETTERS OF ELIA KAZAN, edited by Albert J. Devlin with Marlene J. Devlin. copyright © 2014 by Frances Kazan published by Arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, An imprint of the Knopf DoubledAy publishing group, A division of Random House LLC
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