Wednesday, August 14, 2013

This Day in Theater History (Odets, Ex-‘Golden Boy’ of Broadway, Dies)

August 14, 1963—With his critical reputation in decline and his onetime Old Left colleagues shunning him for betrayal, Clifford Odets, a prolific and popular playwright of 1930s Broadway, died at age 57 of colon cancer in Los Angeles, not far from the film colony that for the last 20 years had paid him handsomely even as it took pieces of his soul.

Lest you feel I’m being a mite melodramatic with that last phrase, let me point out that Odets had done so himself in his 1949 drama, The Big Knife (I posted about the Roundabout Theatre revival several weeks ago), where murder is just one of the sins depicted. Moreover, the title character of the Coen brothers’ 1991 movie Barton Fink finds that Hell is literally a Hollywood hotel (to which this playwright with the Odets social conscience and resume and the George S. Kaufman hairdo has fled to overcome writers’ block).

Even before encountering the real Hell, Fink—lured to Hollywood after a single successful play—finds himself in what seems the very embodiment of it: writing, for studio star Wallace Beery, a screenplay about boxing, a sport he knows nothing about.

The scorn heaped by the Coen brothers on their hapless hero, however, was nothing compared with the self-loathing felt by Odets. At least Beery could act. Not so Elvis Presley, the star of Odets’ last film credit, Wild in the Country (1961). And Odets, the son of Jewish immigrants, who made his name as the voice of urban America, must have felt just as unmoored as Fink grinding out a boxing screenplay when he took on his last writing assignment a year before his death: the Richard Boone TV Western, Have Gun, Will Travel.

In Some Time in the Sun, Tom Dardis took a nuanced approach to the traditional tale of how Hollywood twisted the likes of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Agee, Huxley, and West. Odets might conform to the stereotype of the misused artist better. To be sure, he had a couple of successes: Sweet Smell of Success (1957), a masterful collaboration with Ernest Lehman on a powerful Winchell-like gossip columnist, and None But the Lonely Heart (1944), which provided Cary Grant with perhaps his best dramatic role. Yet much of his time was spent frustratingly on projects where he never received screen credit (e.g., dialogue for the Grant-Bergman love scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious).

Among Odets’ final projects was a musical version of perhaps his greatest Broadway success, Golden Boy. That drama of an up-from-the-streets young man with opposing talents for music and boxing starkly posed the choice between art and commercialism, good and evil—and, many critics (often, former friends) believed, foretold Odets' own fate.

Especially crucial in this regard was Odets’ 1953 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). For the last six years, after having been identified as a Communist, Odets had fallen squarely within the committee’s sights, and it soon became clear that his brief but intense association with Marxism in the mid-1930s had been extensively recorded. The playwright-screenwriter’s attempt to soften the impact of his testimony, by only informing on those named by others, could not disguise the fact that he had capitulated, even while the likes of Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman had, famously, not done so.

In the early 1940s, when he had walked away from his associates in the Group Theatre to go to Hollywood, many old friends believed he had betrayed his gifts by forsaking his dream of socially relevant theater. A decade later, they could point to the HUAC testimony as a second, more personal betrayal.

For years, Odets had been a tortured soul. New Yorker critic John Lahr, in as fine and sympathetic a treatment as the playwright has received from any critic in the last couple of decades, notes that Odets had tried suicide three times before the age of 25. While married to Oscar-winning actress Luise Rainer, he had been so jealous of her friendship with Albert Einstein that he had cut to shreds a photo of the scientist. Now, with his HUAC testimony, the anguish became less overt, but still consumed him from within.

Odets’ harsher critics depict a man too addicted to the creature comforts of Hollywood to embrace principle at the height of the blacklist, but the case was not that simple. By the time of his testimony, it had become abundantly clear that his six-year-old daughter had severe developmental issues that required extended psychiatric treatment. During these years, his divorce from wife Bette Grayson (then the latter’s death a couple of years later) meant that his family expenses had mounted significantly.

The past several years have brought to New York stages revivals of some of his better-known works: Golden Boy, The Country Girl, Awake and Sing, and The Big Knife. While it is good that modern audiences now have a chance once again to decide for themselves the ultimate value of his work, the quality of those productions has varied enough that we are still nowhere near a consensus on Odets' place in the American theater landscape.

Even at the height of his fame, Odets sensed this alienation. “I am homeless wherever I go, always lonely,” he wrote in his journal in 1940, just before he headed out to Hollywood.

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