“Like many of you, I’ve worn the friendship mask,” writes Elia Kazan in A Life, one of the most bracingly honest memoirs ever written. “But then, when I have what I sought, the mask would clatter to the ground, and what I truly am would be revealed . . . I let people come skin-close, until they trust me entirely and feel sure that I like them. But when the need is eased, the production opened, the seduction completed, I back away.” Did I say bracingly? Make that militantly honest.

Kazan’s exposure of himself and his many failings throughout his 825-page autobiography is quite a feat, and A Life is a must-read for aspiring filmmakers, theater artists, psychoanalysts and even lovers of literature, its lack of grammatical refinement offset by the incessant drive toward a frank moral accounting. Willingly or not, most readers will recognize something of themselves in those pages. Kazan insists that whether or not we choose to believe it, we are all dissemblers and rationalizers — in essence, traitors. And that it’s all just part of being human.

I can imagine readers of the preceding paragraph chuckling to themselves, seeing a fundamental relativism at work. Isn’t Kazan, 15 of whose 19 feature films will screen during LACMA’s three-week retrospective, just another drowning man insisting that we all go down together? This is to ignore the clarity of his self-criticism, but then people are always imagining that they have a bead on the man. You could see it in the eyes of all those Academy members, ablaze with moral rectitude, as they watched him accept his 1999 Lifetime Achievement Oscar. He was visibly weakened by age, no longer the vigorous dynamo of American theater and cinema. And yet, there was that famous smile, a little creased around the edges but as big and bright as ever. “I call it the Anatolian smile,” writes Kazan as he studies his own mug in the mirror, “the smile that covers resentment. And fear. I see the cunning in that smile.” It was his most potent weapon, inherited from his dreaded immigrant father and drawn like a sword to fight off everyone from Lee Strasberg to Tallulah Bankhead, from Darryl Zanuck to HUAC and from Sam Spiegel to the Lincoln Center Board.

The Anatolian Smile was the original title of Kazan’s most personal film and one of his greatest, América, América (1963). It is also, like all his work, imperfect, lurching a little too far in one emotional direction and pushing a little too insistently toward a grand catharsis. But how much is this a fault, and how much a predilection? The rough, dramatically unkempt nature of Kazan’s best movies has often been misunderstood, most of all by those who dismissed him as an “actors’ director.” In fact, his cinema is so insistently exploratory, so devoted to following a particular emotional thread right to the end — Marlon Brando’s awakening sense of moral agency in On the Waterfront (1954); James Dean’s slowly reconciling vision of himself in relation to his father in East of Eden (1955) — that it resists classical construction. The denouements arrive but the individual transformations seem like they could keep on unraveling. Indeed, Kazan’s movies are far riskier and rangier than all those Academy Awards and cultural appointments and classy screenwriters would indicate.

It would have been easy, so easy, for Kazan to have become a different kind of artist, mindful of the status quo, careful to choose the right projects and make the right cultural moves (think Mike Nichols). After Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, he ruled Broadway, and he left a permanent mark on acting in America by recognizing Marlon Brando’s genius right off the bat, and by co-founding the Actors Studio with his old Group Theater pal Bobby Lewis. He went out to Hollywood as a golden boy, and he began with a triumph. In his sharp new critical biography of Kazan, Richard Schickel sings the praises of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and rightly so. It’s a heartbreaker, and if you’re ever in the mood to see this writer shed buckets of tears, invite me over and put on the DVD. It is also, by Kazan’s own reckoning, not fully his film (Brooklyn’s producer Louis Lighton was responsible for many fine period pieces). Kazan judged his first movies too polite, too clean, too dramatically tidy, not least the Academy Award–winning Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). He was still “Gadge,” the compliant “wonder boy” who could step in and take over the direction of Pinky (1949) from his hero, John Ford, as a “favor” to Zanuck, or deliver a faithful cinematic transcription of Streetcar (1951) to Warner Bros. Kazan is unusually hard on these films, and most of all on himself for agreeing to do them — with a smile.

How did he get out of this very pretty jam? By making himself Public Enemy No. 1, with a bullet. There has been a lot written and said — just and unjust, necessary and unnecessary — about Kazan’s friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Schickel does a thorough job of laying the political groundwork for Kazan’s actions, and rightly points out that it was not the testimony itself as much as the director’s open letter in The New York Times justifying those actions that cemented his infamy. Kazan himself spends pages and pages of A Life on the dreaded question, at various moments claiming indifference, anger, pride, sorrow, and finally, in the middle of a dream, begging forgiveness.

It seems to me that those who are quick to judge Kazan should think twice. “I did what I did because it was the more tolerable of the two alternatives that were, either way, painful, even disastrous, and either way wrong for me,” he writes. “That’s what a difficult decision means: Either way you go, you lose.” That Kazan’s actions were damaging to others is indisputable. Meanwhile, his art took on an unparalleled frankness and grandeur. The intensely painful emotional awakenings contained in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn took center stage, and the acute attention to physical reality that had decorated Boomerang! (1947) and Panic in the Streets (1950) was now a focal point — the Hoboken docks of On the Waterfront, the Depression-era South of Wild River (1960) and the pre–World War I Salinas of East of Eden have a weight and tactility not to be found in any other films of the period. Kazan understood how deeply places, people and things affect one another. This is what gives his films their oft-noted intensity, which is always character- and situation-specific and miles from the vague emotional surges and thrusts of his many imitators.

Unsurprisingly, betrayal and compromise lie at the heart of On the Waterfront, East of Eden, Wild River, Splendor in the Grass (1961) and América, América, five of the finest achievements in American cinema, each containing passages of matchless beauty and eloquence. The exchanges between Brando and Eva Marie Saint in Waterfront, between Dean and each of his estranged parents in Eden, Lee Remick returning to her old house in River, the ineffably sad coda of Splendor — these are peak moments in the history of the art form, and the awkward stretches in those films fade away in comparison. Kazan’s films, so unsettling, so startlingly and jaggedly alive (and that includes lesser works like Viva Zapata!, Baby Doll and A Face in the Crowd), hacked out a new, behaviorally based path in the cinematic wilderness, where the way was ultimately paved for Cassavetes, Mean Streets, Mikey and Nicky, Raging Bull and, more recently, the films of Arnaud Desplechin and the Dardenne brothers.

“The human kind is . . . well, it does the best it can — most of the time,” writes Kazan near the end of A Life. “I don’t hold people’s faults against them; I ask their tolerance for mine.” With a body of work like this, he deserves it.

THE FILMS OF ELIA KAZAN | At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art | Through April 29 | www.lacma.org

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