THE MANY HOUSES OF ELIA KAZAN
Above is a very good one-hour documentary portrait of the great director, novelist and turncoat ratfink Elia Kazan. It was shot in 1981 when Kazan was 72 years of age and, while you don't really learn anything new about Kazan (assuming you've read his mountainous autobiography) you do get to hear it in his own words. But the doc is important for another, more important reason; it affords us views of Kazan's three homes--a country spread in Newtown Connecticut, a brownstone on West 68th Street and a beach house (shack is more accurate) in Montauk, Long Island.
The film opens at the country spread, with Kazan rowing a boat on a lake that spans fourteen or so acres of his hundred or so acre property. There are no formal gardens, to put it mildly. The place is straight-up country, with thickets of trees, branches, patchy lawn and thorny woods through which we wander with Kazan and the interviewer Michel Ciment. It turns out that there are two houses on the property--one is being lived in at the time by Kazan's eldest son Chris. The other, where the interview is being conducted on the patio, seems to have been built as a little studio and then converted into Kazan's living quarters. It's distressingly junkie and simple--or is that actually its charm? Kazan is very down-home and proletariat and the little studio/house is almost proudly, defiantly not the home of one of the most prestigious film/theater artists of the century. At 32 minutes in we get a view of a very rundown tennis court on which Kazan plays a game with his grandson. At 34 minutes we get a view of a pool that makes Norma Desmond's pool look like the Hearst pool at San Simeon. The Kazan pool, however, sits overlooking that big lake that we saw at the opening of the doc. Water facing water. Quite charming really.
At 38 minutes, we move to New York City where Kazan had a five-story brownstone at 22 West 68th Street. We see his office--a wood-paneled room with heavy old-fashioned shutters overlooking the street. He talks poignantly about how he lost both of his wives unexpectedly and that they'd each just finished putting together a home that would be their perfect, forever place. (The brownstone was the work of wife number two, actress and filmmaker Barbara Loden). Once again, despite the potentially chic surroundings, the house feels beat up and more the repository of a bunch of stuff than the setting one might expect of a world-class director.
Finally, at 50 minutes in, we move to the beach at Montauk. Kazan explains that he bought this seaside cottage when he was 'between wives' and frankly it looks like it--only a distracted, depressed ex-married man would be able to stand the place. Nothing graceful (besides the view) is in evidence. The screen doors are torn, the roof is ramshackle and Kazan sits in a room once again packed with what looks more like storage then furniture. He sits at an IBM selectric, typing away while smoking a cigarette, the ocean visible out the window. The doc ends with him lying on a couch next to a rock (or actually a fake-rock) fireplace, musing on his last wishes, which were to live long enough to complete all the work he has in mind. And in fact he did, living another twenty-two years after this was filmed...
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Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 12:14 PM