3. Eavesdropping on Elia Kazan & Lee Strasberg

I’m currently rereading Elia Kazan’s autobiography, “A Life,” and it’s a remarkable book.

In the spring of 1976 I came out to LA to go to USC film school.  It was a bad choice, I only lasted one semester, I should have gone to UCLA or Cal Arts instead.

A couple of years earlier, Elia Kazan gave all his papers to Wesleyan University, and I was part of a film class focused on Kazan.  We watched all of his films and I wrote what turned out to be my longest film essay on his filmography.  (Twenty years later Jeanine Basinger told me she thought I should be a film historian rather than a filmmaker.)

That spring Elia was in LA shooting what turned out his last movie, The Last Tycoon.  One day I went to Larry Edmonds Bookstore on Hollywood Blvd.  I saw Mr. Kazan there, but I was too insanely shy to say hello and introduce myself.  Remarkably, Lee Strasberg was also in the bookstore and Kazan and Strasberg bumped into each other.  I loitered by a bookshelf nearby and witnessed the encounter. 

They were surprised to see each other.  Strasberg reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a couple of sea shells.

“Sea shells,” he said.

“Oh?” Elia asked.

“I was at the beach.”

I don’t remember anything else that they said but I definitely felt on the edge of history witnessing this chance encounter  of Kazan and Strasberg.  There was something about the gesture of Strasberg holding the seashells for Kazan to see that I have never forgotten. Maybe because it was a gesture of childhood, holding up shells collected, but in a wizened hand, that made it so poetic.  Maybe because I knew their history and estrangement that made observing their accidental encounter so powerful.

Would my life have been any different if I would have introduced myself to Kazan, asked to observe his shooting Last Tycoon, pushed the essay I had written about his films into his hands?

My Dashboard, with sand dollars collected on beach (the sand falls out as they dry), Santa Monica, 2013

My Dashboard, with sand dollars collected on beach (the sand falls out as they dry), Santa Monica, 2013