Elia Kazan: Giving and Sharing, Part Two
Elia Kazan on Giving and Sharing, Part Two
Further conversations from 1993/1994
Everyone has a gift; everyone has something they can bring to the conversation. Sadly, the gift they bring may be the realization that they do not belong in the theatre or film or art or literature, but their efforts, their attempts, will improve their lives and will serve as a lesson to the others in their group of what to do and what not to do. My attempts to be a good actor led me to realize that my place in the theatre, if I were to have one, would be as a director. I learned what I could do and what I could not do. I learned where I was of some use or value, and where I was not.
An actor has to remain in the game long enough to see if he can develop into a significant talent, to see if he fails, to see if he might be a better director or producer or designer. Someone, somewhere, must allow this person an outlet to discover these things, to fail, to succeed, to discover. I would urge anyone hoping to be in the arts to work toward becoming the type of person who can provide a safe corner in which a person can develop and experiment without fear or a sense of limitation. The world will bring its overwhelming limitations and demands soon enough. Create and maintain a safe harbor for people.
Try to learn the difference between an actor and a performer: it is a nefariously thin line.
When I worked with Burl Ives (on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) I cast a powerful and remarkable singer and performer: He did not have the requisite equipment of an actor; he had no interest in discovering a character or the ability to maintain a characterization. However, what he did have--that voice, that carriage, that power--was so perfect for Big Daddy that I resisted efforts to re-cast him and worked with him. I told him that his characterization--the establishment of who and what and where Big Daddy lived and operated and cried and lied--was similar to those incredible notes he held when he sang. That he understood, and his characterization never wavered. I was very proud of myself one day when I had Burl walk to the lip of that marvelous [Jo] Mielziner set and bellow out over the first few rows of the theatre. I thought I was witnessing something powerful, something that would really rouse people: It reminded me of great political theatre. I proudly presented it to Tennessee and he made a face like he was passing a stone. 'Tell me,' he said, 'will they be selling war bonds in the lobby?' I had made a serious mistake. I was directing as a performer rather than an artist; I was serving Burl, not the character or the play. We learn from our mistakes. One hopes.
Ben Gazzara, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Burl Ives in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).
Carroll Baker was a lovely and sweetly intuitive actress, but her experience was limited and she lacked so much of the intelligence and flavor that time would ultimately give her. I believe that she was vastly aged and improved once Baby Doll was completed, and she had masters around her: Eli [Wallach], Karl [Malden], and Millie [Dunnock]. Karl and Eli were particularly sweet with her, and led her along as the amatory poodle she was in that film. Carroll's strength was her trust--I never gave her anything that she didn't invest immediately with all that she had. I think her final performance is wonderful, and I never tire of watching it. I think the scene between her and Eli on the swing set is one of the best things in the film, and all the scenes with Karl are like some form of opèra bouffe.
Karl Malden and Carroll Baker in Baby Doll (1956).
Learning to trust is so necessary and so fucking hard. I envy those who come to it easily.
Andy Griffith was another performer who developed, I think, into a fine actor. Andy was a remarkably sweet and decent fellow, and he came to me so open and eager that I knew I could throw anything at him and it would find a willing recipient. Andy had none of Burl's ego about his so-called instrument or particular talent. Andy was a good singer and had made a name for himself as a comedian and monologist: He was not trained in acting. You could tell him anything, lead him anywhere, but a good director does not walk an actor every step of the way--you merely have a puppet at that point, and nothing will be genuine. I personally like to see hesitation and faltering steps in a performance: it makes it terribly real, and the audience develops a protective feeling for the actor and the performer. There is some of that in Andy's performance in [A] Face in the Crowd. Andy's great ally was Pat Neal, who, along with Deborah Kerr, remains for me one of the kindest and most giving of acting partners. I would find it difficult to find a larger heart on this planet than the one that beats in Pat Neal's body: She warmly and laughingly gave everything to the part, to Andy, to me, to everyone on the set. There's a big person, and her seduction of and ultimate betrayal by Lonesome (Griffith's character) is shatteringly good. Am I responsible? Only for being wise enough to cast Pat Neal and steer her toward Andy with the direction to be fulsome.
Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal in A Face in the Crowd (1957).
Learn to be laconic. Just say what you want and say what you need in as few words as possible and then sit back and make sure the work is honored and the players are safe.
Where do you go to be safe? You have to create for yourself a place in your heart, in your soul, where you can go and listen and talk and ponder. You have to have an actual space--like [Virginia] Woolf's place of one's own--to sit and read and wonder about yourself. It is folly to present an unformed and incurious person to the world or to a class or a play--you have to do the work that makes you feel safe, to be informed, to develop. It is easier to trust and to absorb if you make yourself as full and open a person as you can. A bond develops among a group if you fail with them, ask questions with them, tackle projects bigger than yourself with them. A larger bond develops when you do this with an audience that has arrived, also full of trust and curiosity. We cannot ask the theatre or film or books to make us safe, to make us full unless we are willing to do this difficult but necessary work on our own.
We are surrounded by gifts. I suggest you search always for each and every one of them. Go to bed exhausted from the search. Drain yourself examining and loving them. Die worn out from looking and loving. Try to die in the act of looking and loving.