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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Filmmaker And Theater Legend Elia Kazan


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This year marks our 30th anniversary as a daily NPR program. And this week, we're featuring some of our favorite interviews from the early days. To start today's show, we have a 1988 interview with Elia Kazan. He directed Marlon Brando on "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "On The Waterfront," and directed "East of Eden," "Splendor In The Grass," "Baby Doll," "A Face In The Crowd," and "The Last Tycoon."

Kazan had an equally important career in the theater. In the 1930s, he worked with the Group Theatre, where he followed the vision of Lee Strasberg and learned the style of acting that became known as the method. He later co-founded the Actors Studio with Strasberg.

Many of Kazan's friends and colleagues never forgave him for naming names when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, in the era when people accused of being Communists lost their jobs. For many years, Kazan refused to publicly address the subject, but he broke the silence in his autobiography, "Elia Kazan: A Life." I spoke with him when it was published. We started with this classic scene from "A Streetcar Named Desire."


MARLON BRANDO: (As Stanley Kowalski, yelling) Hey, Stella.

PEG HILLIAS: (As Eunice Hubbell, yelling) You quit that howling down there, and go to bed.

BRANDO: (As Stanley Kowalski) Eunice, I want my girl down here.

HILLIAS: (As Eunice Hubbell) You shut up. You're going to get the law on you.

BRANDO: (As Stanley Kowalski, yelling) Hey, Stella.

HILLIAS: (As Eunice Hubbell) You can't beat on a woman and then call her back because she ain't going to come. You're going to have a baby.

BRANDO: (As Stanley Kowalski) Listen, Eunice.

HILLIAS: (As Eunice Hubbell, yelling) I hope they haul you in and turn the fire hose on you like they done the last time.

BRANDO: (As Stanley Kowalski, yelling) Eunice, I want my girl down here.

HILLIAS: (As Eunice Hubbell) You stinker.


BRANDO: (As Stanley Kowalski, yelling) Hey, Stella. Hey, Stella.

VIVIEN LEIGH: (As Blanche DuBois, whispering) Do that...

HILLIAS: (As Eunice Hubbell) I wouldn't mix in this.


GROSS: Elia Kazan, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with "A Streetcar Named Desire." Now, you actually, really, discovered Marlon Brando for the stage version of that, which you directed before directing the film. Why did you want him to audition for the role in the stage version?

ELIA KAZAN: Well, there was no audition. I had produced a play with Harold Clurman where he played a part. And he played a - like, a five-, six-minute scene, and he was stupendous, and he was marvelous in it. And that was his audition. He didn't know it. But then, when we lost John Garfield, and I began to think who would - really would be good as Stanley Kowalski, I thought of Marlon and gave him 20 bucks to go up and see Tennessee Williams up at the cape.

I learned later, he hadn't showed up, but he'd hitchhiked and used the $20 to eat with. So - but anyway, Williams took to him immediately. He called me up, he was ecstatic. He was overwhelmed. And that was - that's all the audition there was.

GROSS: When I think of all the actors and all the people in general who have imitated Brando doing Stella - I mean, untold numbers of people - what went on when you were directing him in that scene?

KAZAN: In that scene?

GROSS: Yeah.

KAZAN: I just told him to get on his knees at the bottom of the staircase. But I didn't tell him what to do with his voice or how he should shout it. He just knew. But many, many things with him - many, many times with him, he was ahead of me, and as he understood what I said and understood it better than I said it. And I hardly had to tell him anything. Once I said, you fall on your knees, and he did. And that's all there was to it.

GROSS: How many takes did you do of that scene?

KAZAN: How many takes did I do? I think two.

GROSS: And you knew you had it.

KAZAN: Yeah. Well, you couldn't mistake it, could you, really?

GROSS: (Laughter).

KAZAN: That tone of voice - I mean, people have imitated it and shouted it. And, you know, it's been on comedy shows and everything. It's just - once in a decade, a voice like that comes out.

GROSS: Now, you directed Brando again three years later in "On The Waterfront." I have found out in your book that it was initially supposed to be Frank Sinatra in the role.

KAZAN: Yeah. He would've been damn good too, but not as good as Brando. I don't think anybody's as good as Brando. But Frank would've been very good. Frank comes from Hoboken, and he's a street kid too, and he's tough. And he would've been good. And he's tough the way Brando's tough. He's got a tough exterior, and knows what to do with his fists and so on. But he also has a very poetic and romantic side that comes out in his songs, of course.

Anyway, I was ready to do it with Frank. But one thing led to another in the contracting - in the contract, and also in Frank's schedule. He had to be somewhere at a certain time. I've forgotten the details of it. And we switched to Brando.

GROSS: Brando, in that movie, really has this combination of strength and vulnerability.

KAZAN: Right, Terry. You hit it.

GROSS: What'd you talk with him about when he took on the role - about what characteristics you wanted him to get in there?

KAZAN: It's just that I said, he's - keeps a tough front towards everybody, but he feels this guilt about Eva Marie Saint's brother terribly - that it kills him, and he can't get rid of it. And he really would like to be out of the gangster-hoodlum world - and then didn't like what they did to him because they humiliate him. The part Lee Cobb played constantly humiliated him, made him appear like a cheap kid. And I told him that he would resent that and not show it for a while, and then release it as the film went on.

GROSS: I want to play another one of the most famous scenes in movie history. And this is the I-could've-been-a-contender scene. Now, in your book, you're very self-effacing about it. You said that you've been highly praised for the direction of this scene, but the truth is, you didn't really direct it. It kind of directed itself. I don't truly believe that. So let's hear the scene, and then we'll talk about it.

KAZAN: I'll say one thing about it before you do.


KAZAN: The scene is good for several reasons, but one reason is because it was beautifully written by Budd Schulberg. It's a perfectly-written scene and in a kind of a tough language that is on the - poetic in itself. That's all.

GROSS: And this scene is played by Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger.

KAZAN: Right.


ROD STEIGER: (As Charley Malloy) And that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.

BRANDO: (As Terry Malloy) It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. You remember that night in the Garden? You came down to my dressing room and said, kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson. You remember that? This ain't your night. My night? I could've taken Wilson apart. So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark. And what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville (ph). You was my brother, Charley. You should've looked out for me a little bit. You should've taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money.

STEIGER: (As Charley Malloy) Oh, I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.

BRANDO: (As Terry Malloy) You don't understand. I could've had class. I could've been a contender. I could've been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let's face it. It was you, Charley.

GROSS: There's a musicality in the way those two actors read their lines that is really something. Did you work with them on that?

KAZAN: No, I didn't. I didn't direct that scene much. I didn't direct that scene, really. By that time in the shooting schedule, both Rod and Marlon knew what they had. And then the lines, themselves, are so beautifully written. Instead of a bum, which is what I am - that's the way those people talk. They're perfectly-written lines. And Marlon naturally took to them.

GROSS: You have really taken pride in directing actors who are encouraged to ask questions about what they're doing.


GROSS: What kind of questions did Brando ask you about this role - any questions?

KAZAN: Very, very little. I think we had a instinctive fraternity. I think we understood each other, almost from the word go, very well. And we would talk a lot about other things, but not a hell of a lot about the role. He - this role is written thoroughly. When he says taking dives, Palookaville, all that - and it's written very thoroughly and beautifully.

And I - he didn't need much instruction. I mean, I wasn't kidding in the book. I wasn't being falsely modest. I think I'm a damn good director and have been a damn good director. But in this scene, I didn't direct that scene much - very little. I just put them there and so on.

GROSS: A lot of the extras in "On The Waterfront" were actually longshoremen.

KAZAN: Right, and hoodlums.

GROSS: And hoodlums, yeah.

KAZAN: And fighters.

GROSS: So you had a bodyguard in the making of the movie.

KAZAN: I had a bodyguard six feet behind me at all times. Well, there were some rough characters all around me, and they were taking offense that we showed Hoboken, for example, for a bad place. And they were offended. (Laughter) I laugh at that. But anyway, they had civic pride. That's what made me laugh. I thought they had civic pride.

And - but nobody threatened me much. Once they - a fella came, and slammed me against the wall and was going to beat me up. But then the bodyguard and another friend named Brownie came up, and that was the end of that threat.

GROSS: Gosh, let's move on to another movie you directed. Now, we talked about how you really, basically, discovered Marlon Brando. You also really discovered James Dean. You gave him his first film role in your film "East of Eden."

KAZAN: Yeah.

GROSS: I find that kind of interesting in a way because they're both - they were both at the time young actors with this pent-up energy and alienation.

KAZAN: Yeah. That's it. Alienation's right. Pent-up energy's right, Terry. You've got it exactly right, especially - no, not especially - both of them the same way, same thing in both of them. Somehow that must have appealed to me because maybe I have pent-up energy and alienation, too.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KAZAN: I felt brotherly towards them.

GROSS: Would you describe the meeting with James Dean that made you realize he had something?

KAZAN: I went to see a play of his. And a friend of mine named Paul Osbourn had recommended him to me. And I went to see him in a play. He played a part of an Arab, a small part. And I didn't think much of him. But I thought just to please Paul, I'd ask him to come into Warner Bros. office.

And I went in there that day, and there he was, like a - I say in the book - like a pile of rags in the corner, all bent over, scrunched up. And so - and I thought, well - he didn't even get up, didn't look at me, didn't get up. And so I went in the office, and said, well, I'll make the son of a bitch wait a little bit. It'll do him good.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KAZAN: So anyway, finally I call him into the office, and he came in. And he didn't say anything. He was not a talker. So finally, he didn't say a damn thing. And I said, well. And he said, do you want to go for a ride with me on my motorbike? So I said, God, I hate motorbikes. I didn't say it to him, but I do hate motorbikes. I think they're a menace. I said, all right, Jimmy, well, let's go.

So I went downstairs, and he got his motorbike and unlatched it or chained it or whatever he did. And I got in the back. And he rode me around the middle of the city. And it was like he was showing that a country boy can defy the city and defy the rules of the city. He zigzagged in and out, in and out. I didn't want to ruin my relationship as a director by saying, Jimmy, I'm frightened; cut it out. I was frightened. But anyway, finally - we finally both lived.

GROSS: I want to play a scene from this movie. And this is a scene where - well, let me - for our listeners who haven't seen the movie in a long time, in East of Eden, there's a father played by Raymond Massey. And he has two sons. One son he favors. The son he doesn't favor is James Dean. And James Dean has worked really hard to endear himself to his father. He's invested money in bean futures in the hopes of making back money that his father lost. And it's his father's birthday. He's presenting him the money, but his father won't accept it. Here's that scene with Raymond Massey and James Dean.


JAMES DEAN: (As Caleb Trask) That's for you. It's all the money you lost in lettuce business. That's for you, and I made it for you.

RAYMOND MASSEY: (As Adam Trask) Cal, you will have to give it back.

DEAN: (As Caleb Trask) No. I made it for you, Dad. I want you to have it.

MASSEY: (As Adam Trask) You'll have to give it back.

DEAN: (As Caleb Trask) Who? I can't give it - to who?

MASSEY: (As Adam Trask) To the people you got it from.

DEAN: (As Caleb Trask) British purchasing agency - I can't give it back to them.

MASSEY: (As Adam Trask) Then give it to the farmers you robbed.

DEAN: (As Caleb Trask) We didn't rob anybody. That was - we paid two cents a pound - two cents over market for that stuff.

MASSEY: (As Adam Trask) Cal, I sign my name, and boys go out, and some die. And some live helpless without arms and legs. Not one will come back untorn. Do you think I could take a profit from that? I don't want the money, Cal. I couldn't take it. I thank you for the thought, but...

DEAN: (As Caleb Trask) I'll keep it for you. I'll wrap it up, and we'll just keep it in here. And then we'll...

MASSEY: (As Adam Trask) I'll never take it.

GROSS: There's a great part right after that where you can't tell whether James Dean is going to hug or slug his father.

KAZAN: That is good, yeah.

GROSS: Now, you write in your book that there really was a tension between James Dean and Raymond Massey. And you...

KAZAN: Yes, there was.

GROSS: You basically tried to exploit that in the movie.

KAZAN: They didn't like each other, and especially Ray Massey. He couldn't stand Dean. He just couldn't - hated to play scenes with him. And I didn't - I guess I did exploit it because I didn't do anything about curing it or easing it. And you see how much he resents him in the scene, in the role. But also, he did in life. It served my purposes to not do anything about it. I didn't egg them on to each other, but I didn't do anything to heal it.

GROSS: You know, in the clips that we just heard - we heard from Brando and from Dean, two very different actors in that Brando you describe as an actor with a lot of technique, Dean as an actor who had virtually none at least at the time you directed him. How does that change you as a director, depending on whether you're working with someone who has a lot of technique or someone who's more of a natural and doesn't have that technique?

KAZAN: You adapt to what each one is. You - I talked more to Jimmy than I ever did to Marlon. I took him aside. And finally when I felt he was disturbed in life by what was happening in his own personal life, I moved him into a dressing room on the Warner Brother lot, and I took the dressing room directly facing it so that I'd always be at hand. I was like a father to him or a big brother to him and looked after him.

Every morning, I'd call him out and see what he - condition he was in, whether he had a miserable night or not. And then I had to several times stop him from owning a horse or a motorbike or whatever, you know? So it became a very different, more intense, more particular relationship. With Marlon, I didn't have to do anything like that.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1988 interview with director Elia Kazan. We'll hear more after a break as our 30th anniversary retrospective continues. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're continuing our 30th anniversary retrospective featuring interviews from our first two years. Let's get back to my interview with director Elia Kazan, which was recorded in 1988 when he published his autobiography.


GROSS: Now, your autobiography is really the first time you've publicly addressed why you named names during the HUAC hearings...

KAZAN: That's right.

GROSS: ...In the 1950s. And I was wondering why you're ready to talk about it now. For years when you were interviewed, people would ask you about it, and you wouldn't - you just wouldn't want to talk about it. People have written in their autobiographies how they felt about you naming names, but you've never publicly addressed it till now.

KAZAN: The reason I felt OK about it now was that I always hesitated to do it because I wanted to make it part of my whole life - in other words, so that everything that happened before had some way or other, not for others but for me, led up to it. And for example, I put in the scene where the man from Detroit came and attacked me in front of my group. I put in the scene where we were trying to do a picture in Mexico, and the Communists there prevented us from doing it for their reasons. I put in other references so that by the time I got to it, you felt I'd been through certain experiences that would at least motivate me, if no one else, into doing that.

GROSS: Well, my understanding is that you decided to talk for two reasons. One was that you felt that when you were a member of a communist group, that the actors were really exploited by the party and also that you didn't want to give up your career, that you'd really thought about it, and you decided that writers could write while they're in prison, but directors couldn't do anything in prison. And directors couldn't do anything if they were shut out of the industry.

KAZAN: Yeah, something like that but not exactly. I thought - you know, I love my work, and it means everything to me. It's my whole life really except my family. My family and my work - those are the two things I have. And I thought, why should I give up my career for something I don't believe in? I don't believe in it. And if people who are communists are still going to attack me and still feel that they don't want to talk about it, I also feel that - then hell with them.

I also feel that any country - for example England and France - any country has the right to investigate something like what was going on in this country. And the only trouble with our committee was that two of the fellows lied to me. They told me that I was in an executive session where I'd be talking privately. And it turned out they were running with the news to Hollywood gossip columnists and everything else. So I lost my respect for them, too.

GROSS: There are many people who have been in your life who've never forgiven you for naming names and have certainly never forgotten it. Did you expect this decision to stay with you throughout your life in the way that it has?

KAZAN: No, you have to believe me, Terry. I don't give a darn about that. I only am concerned really whether I respect myself. I thought a very long time about it. I thought very hard about it. And I did - I made a difficult choice. Both sides, both ways would have been difficult for me.

GROSS: Have you had second thoughts about the choice you made?

KAZAN: Not really, no. I think I wish they'd done it. I wish they'd name me. I think if the whole bunch of us had come out and said we did have a communist cell, so what, I don't think they would have been worse off. I think it would have been - clear the air. But of course except for the three I did talk to, none of - they didn't do it.

GROSS: Director Elia Kazan recorded in 1988. He died in 2003 at the age of 94. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.