By Steven Suskin
27 Apr 2014
Back in 1988, Elia Kazan — who probably qualifies as the premier American stage & screen director of the 20th century — published his revealing and illuminating autobiography, "A Life." By this point, Kazan had fazed out of stage and screen activity, his final major credits being Broadway's Sweet Bird of Youth (in 1959) and the 1976 Robert De Niro film "The Last Tycoon." His attention had turned to writing, with four best-selling novels starting in 1961. By the time he came to prepare his life, he was an accomplished writer — which is to say, his autobiography was carefully and meticulously written by someone who knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.
"The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan," edited by Albert J. Devlin with Marlene J. Devlin [Knopf], start in 1925 and continue until 1988, although all but 50 of the 600-odd pages of letters come before 1970. (Kazan died in 2003, at the age of 94.) Thus, the "Selected Letters" does not give us Kazan's final word on his many triumphs and fewer missteps, and that turns out to be the new book's great strength. Kazan surely self-filtered himself when he was writing the letters, depending upon what he was writing about and whom he was writing to; but a wise and cagey forty-year-old writing about what happened yesterday is quite different from a wise and cagey eighty-year old writing for posterity.
From England comes "Olivier" by Philip Ziegler [Quercus MacLehose]. Ziegler, a book editor turned award-winning biographer, often writes about royal subjects. But who is more royal than Lord Olivier? The author has not only done a meticulous job of research; he has had access to more than 50 hours of recollections taped by Olivier while preparing his 1982 autobiography, "Confessions of an Actor." He also received information, notes and taped interviews from other writers who have done significant research on Olivier. It is one thing to uncover fascinating and in some cases surprising information; it is another to know how to distill and organize it. Ziegler gives us a well-informed and immensely readable portrait of the man, his circle and his career.Continued...