erik lundegaard

Tuesday October 25, 2022

Elia, Zero

I've been reading Elia Kazan's “A Life” off and on for a few weeks now, and my initial thought was this: Has any memoir more ill-served its author than this one? He's just such a dick in it. Let's begin here:

My “womanizing” saved my life. It kept the juices pumping and saved me from drying up, turning to dust, and blowing away, like some of my friends.

It's not even the calculation, or the quotes around “womanizing,” as if it's not a thing. It's that final, wholly unnecessary dig at “some of my friends.” I guess his friends were steadfast, like saps, so they dried up, turned to dust and blew away. Thanks ... friend.

And he keeps doing this. As he's writing his memoir, Lillian Hellman dies. He named names, she didn't, and she wrote a book about the period called “Scoundrel Time,” which is very good, and I forget if he shows up in it as a scoundrel but if he didn't he should have. But this is what he says about her: “Lillian was a person I did not like, but since this is being written on the occasion of her death, de mortuis nil nisi bonum.” And then he speaks ill of the dead, speculating on her sex life. Later in the book, he implies she all but propositioned him. Later still, she invites him over for dinner, gumbo, and tells him the cook/servant/whatever is away for the night, but no, no, please, he just can't. Poor Lillian. Didn't she know he slept with Marilyn? 

And, sure, that's an enemy. But here he is on a friend, or a one-time friend, Arthur Miller, after the success of Death of a Salesman:

Art began to relish the joys of being right. A supposed rebel, he lived the life of an establishment god, and he liked it. There is a danger for an artist of becoming a man who sees his role to be teaching others and pronouncing judgment on one and all.

As Kazan pronounces judgment on this one.

Joseph Mankiewicz was head of the Directors Guild during that scoundrel time, who, with Kazan by his side, fought against a right-wing takeover of the org by the likes of C.B. DeMille and Clarence Brown. A hero! But let's get some digs in anyway:

Joe Mankiewicz, at that time, was a handsome man in that nonmuscular way many women prefer; he enjoyed the gift of his sexuality and an abundant scoffing humor. To scoff in that society was to demonstrate good sense. ... Now, at age seventy-eight, his hair thin above a face plumped by ease, he lives, on money he made long ago, in a handsome home in the elite backcountry of New York's Westchester County, looked after by a gracious and understanding wife and guarded by his four Oscars.

And self-pitying? Read this about his cheating:

As always, there was a price. I led a double life and became a double person. It marked me. This took—as one analyst pointed out to me repeatedly—an enormous amount of my vital energy. But I didn't know and don't now know the solution. Even though my mendacity was confined to one area, it made me a different kind of man than I'd like to have been. It also hurt someone else, which resulted in the guilt I've carried all my days.

I cheated. It sapped my vital energy. And now I carry this guilt. All my days. 

But I suppose it's better than memoirs where you talk in superlatives about all of your contemporaries. My father hates those. And it's not poorly written. Plus he's brutal with himself, too. The following vignette is powerful. 

My favorite [cast member during the filming of “Panic in the Streets”] was Zero Mostel... I thought him an extraordinary artist and a delightful companion, one of the funniest and most original men I'd ever met; I never knew what he was going to say next. I constantly sought his company. He liked me too—one reason being that he was one of three people whom I rescued from the industry's blacklist, which was already in effect.

For a long time, Zero had not been able to get work in films, but I got him in my film—and so earned increased admiration from “our side.” I was a political hero as well. After the film was done and forgotten, I didn't see Zero again for several years. In the meantime I'd changed my mind about many things, including my feelings about the investigation into communism in this country. To the horror of a few of my best friends, I testified friendly to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. One winter's night, on 72nd Street near Columbus Avenue, I ran into Zero. By that time I'd hardened myself against the disapproval some old friends were giving me and didn't much care what people a good deal closer to me than Zero thought. But for some reason I did care what he thought. He stopped me and put an arm around my neck—a little too tight—and said in one of the most dolorous voices I've ever heard, “Why did you do that? You shouldn't have done that.” He took me into a bar and we had a drink and then another, but he didn't say much and I didn't say much. All he did was look at me once in a while, and his eyes were saying what his lips were not: “Why did you do that?” I never saw him again.

Posted at 08:18 AM on Tuesday October 25, 2022 in category Books  
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