Clifford Odets (July 18, 1906 – August 14, 1963)

From: Cary Grant – a Brilliant Disguise (2020), by Scott Eyman:

“There had been a P.S. on the marriage congratulation from Odets, a thank-you for a loan that Grant had made to him. Lee and Paula Strasberg would always be Clifford Odets’s best friends, but his best Los Angeles friends were Grant and Danny Kaye.

“The Five Pennies is a semi-biographical 1959 film starring Danny Kaye as jazz cornet player and bandleader Loring “Red” Nichols. Other cast members include Barbara Bel Geddes, Louis Armstrong, Harry Guardino, Bob Crosby, Bobby Troup, Susan Gordon, and Tuesday Weld. The film was directed by Melville Shavelson.
The real Red Nichols recorded all of Kaye’s cornet playing for the film soundtrack. The other musicians in Red’s band were not asked to provide their musical contributions, and the sound of his band was supplied by session players.” (Wikipedia)

Supporting those pillars were the remnants of the Hollywood outpost of the Group Theatre -John Garfield, Luther Adler- -and then Charlie Chaplin, Hanns Eisler, and Jascha Heifetz.

Odets was relentless in searching out those for whom he felt an affinity. Jean Renoir had opened his front door to find Odets standing there, wearing a raincoat, even though it wasn’t raining. “I’ve got you at last,” he said. “I swore that I’d not only see you but that we’d become friends.” Renoir was brooding over his career troubles in Hollywood when Odets invited him to a party so he could meet Chaplin. “It was like inviting a devout Christian to meet God in person,” Renoir remembered, but he had a commitment he couldn’t get out of and didn’t attend. But Odets kept up the matchmaking, and Renoir and his wife, Dido, came to know and adore Chaplin.

“Jean Renoir (15 September 1894 – 12 February 1979) was a French film director, screenwriter, actor, producer and author. As a film director and actor, he made more than forty films from the silent era to the end of the 1960s. His films La Grande Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939) are often cited by critics as among the greatest films ever made. He was ranked by the BFI’s Sight & Sound poll of critics in 2002 as the fourth greatest director of all time. Among numerous honours accrued during his lifetime, he received a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1975 for his contribution to the motion picture industry. Renoir was the son of the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and the uncle of the cinematographer Claude Renoir. He was one of the first filmmakers to be known as an auteur.” (Wikipedia)

By the time Grant and Betsy (Drake) married, Odets had moved back to New York, and they were communicating via letters and phone calls.
The relationship had subtly altered from one of coworkers and equals to one where Odets was frequently thanking Grant for his generosity, apologizing for his general depression, and for Grant’s patience in listening to Odets’s complaints. “There is so little kindness in the world that I can not thank you too much for yours,” Odets wrote. “It warms & cheers me & makes you increasingly precious to me.”

A few months after Grant’s wedding, Odets wired him that Kenneth McKenna, the story editor for MGM, had a copy of Odets’s new play, The Country Girl. He asked Grant to read it with an eye to a movie production. Grant must have expressed some polite interest, because Odets wrote in May 1950 with the news that Sid Rogell at RKO had decided against it as a property for Grant after a conference with Howard Hughes and Grant.
A month later Odets had to ask for another loan. As always, Grant sent a check. Odets wrote to thank him, mentioning that he had cast Paul Kelly and Uta Hagen in the Broadway production of The Country Girl. The play opened in November 1950 and ran for seven months – the last commercial hit Odets would have. The movie version of 1954 starred Bing Crosby, William Holden, and an utterly miscast Grace Kelly, who nevertheless won the Oscar as Best Actress because she was Grace Kelly.

The success of the play and resulting movie sale meant that Odets was again able to start repaying Grant’s generosity.

In 1952, Odets testified as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He named names- he and Elia Kazan agreed to name each other, and Odets also offered up J. Edward Bromberg – dead for some months- and a few others, all of whom had been named by others.
“What he needed from me was what I needed from him,” Kazan would write in his memoirs. “Permission to name the other.” When Kazan got back to his house after meeting with Odets about their testimony, he asked his wife, Molly, what she thought. “I don’t worry about you; you’ll survive anything. But I do worry about Clifford.”

Odets’s testimony was oddly bifurcated; after disposing of the unpleasant business of selling out his friends, Odets refused to grovel any further and stoutly defended his liberal political outlook. His testimony was a compressed version of his entire life- he wanted to have it both ways: write great plays in New York and make lots of money in Hollywood, pollinate beautiful actresses while proclaiming the higher morality of the artist; name names and be a good liberal.

Kazan went on to make some of his best films after he testified, but, as he would write,

‘What was possible for me hurt Clifford mortally. He was never the same after he testified. He gave away his identity when he did that; he was no longer the hero-rebel, the fearless prophet of a new world. It choked off the voice he’d had. The ringing tone, the burst of passion, were no longer there. What in the end gave me strength drained him of his. I realize now that my action in the matter had influenced him strongly. I wish it had not. I believe he should have remained defiant, maintained his treasured identity, and survived as his best self. He was to die before he died.’

This sounds like eloquent overstatement, until you remember that even in Sweet Smell of Success, Odets’s best late work, the dialogue is almost entirely keyed to contempt (J. J. Hunsecker) and self-loathing (Sidney Falco).

“Odets was the subject of a psycho-biography by psychoanalyst Margaret Brenman-Gibson: Clifford Odets – American Playwright – The Years from 1906–1940. It was one component of an umbrella project Brenman-Gibson undertook on the subject of creativity. The biography was intended to be a three-volume work, with the second and third volumes to cover the final 23 years of Odets’s life. Brenman-Gibson died in 2004, leaving the project unfinished.” (Wikipedia)

Walt Odets says his father never spoke of his testimony in later years. Odets and Kazan remained close for the rest of Odets’s life. In January 1955, Odets returned to Hollywood, and he and Grant resumed seeing each other on a regular basis…

…As far as Kazan was concerned, Odets was more than a man, more than a great playwright. He was a metaphor.

‘The tragedy of the American theater and of our lives is what could have been,’ Kazan said to a gathering of actors a few months after Odets died.

‘Forces dispersed instead of gathered. Talents unused or used at a fraction of their worth. Potential unrealized. We all know our problems. We are not kids, we are not students. We know we are here on short leases. ..
The man who could have been the Lear of this generation is playing a sheriff on a TV series. I don’t think he plays sheriffs very well. He could have been a great Lear. The man who could have been the greatest actor in the history of American theater is sulking on a grubby hilltop over Beverly Hills or on a beach on the island of Tahiti. What happened to them? They don’t know. Don’t look down on them. They are not weaklings. They were idealists too. Nor are they corrupt, confused, or sicker than most; they are your brothers.
We don’t do what we want to do. We do what we think we have to do. Or what’s worse, what other people want us to do. … When we go from flop to flop we are terrified. When we find ourselves in a hit, we are bored to death.’

Kazan was specifically referring to Lee J. Cobb…

…and Marlon Brando, but he could also have been thinking about actors who didn’t live in Tahiti. He was thinking of how dissatisfaction is so often wired into our being; that there is an intrinsically tragic element in creative lives that remain less than they might have been. He was talking of Clifford Odets, but he could have been talking about Cary Grant.

Irene Mayer Selznick wrote to Grant a few days after Odets died:

…I’ve long known that it was a momentous afternoon that Clifford brought me to the set of None But the Lonely Heart. I am in his debt for that and many other rewarding currents. That our real friendship began then, makes it sweeter.

That you added greatly to his life, you must know. I hope you know how much. That being so, he added to yours, and thus I send you sympathy on your loss.

Cary, my dear friend, you add greatly to the life of any friend of yours. I value you and love you.

Blessings–as always.


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