Clifford Odets



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Clifford Odets

Clifford Odets

Clifford Odets in 1928
Born (1906-07-18)July 18, 1906
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died August 14, 1963(1963-08-14) (aged 57)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Stomach cancer
Resting place Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale
Nationality American
Occupation Playwright, screenwriter, director
Years active 19251963
Spouse(s) Luise Rainer (m. 1937–40)
Bette Grayson (m. 1943–52)
Children Nora (19452008)
Walt (1947)

Clifford Odets (July 18, 1906 – August 14, 1963) was an American playwright, screenwriter, and director. Odets was widely seen as successor to Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O'Neill as O'Neill began to retire from Broadway's commercial pressures and increasing critical backlash in the mid-1930s. From early 1935 on, Odets' socially relevant dramas proved extremely influential, particularly for the remainder of the Great Depression. Odets' works inspired the next several generations of playwrights, including Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon, David Mamet, and Jon Robin Baitz. After the production of his play Clash by Night in the 1941-42 season, Odets focused his energies on film projects, remaining in Hollywood for the next seven years. He began to be eclipsed by such playwrights as Miller, Tennessee Williams and, in 1950, William Inge.

Except for his adaptation of Konstantin Simonov's play The Russian People in the 1942-43 season, Odets did not return to Broadway until 1949, with the premiere of The Big Knife, an allegorical play about Hollywood. At the time of his death in 1963, Odets was serving as both script writer and script supervisor on The Richard Boone Show, born of a plan for televised repertory theater. Though many obituaries lamented his work in Hollywood and considered him someone who had not lived up to his promise, director Elia Kazan understood it differently. "The tragedy of our times in the theatre is the tragedy of Clifford Odets," Kazan began, before defending his late friend against the accusations of failure that had appeared in his obituaries. "His plan, he said, was to . . . come back to New York and get [some new] plays on. They’d be, he assured me, the best plays of his life. . . .Cliff wasn't 'shot.' . . . The mind and talent were alive in the man."

Early life

Odets was born in Philadelphia to Louis Odets (born Gorodetsky) and Pearl Geisinger, Russian- and Romanian-Jewish immigrants, and was raised in Philadelphia and the Bronx, New York. He dropped out of high school after two years to become an actor. In 1931, he became a founding member of the Group Theatre, a highly influential New York theatre company that utilized an acting technique new to the United States. This technique was based on the system devised by the Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski. It was further developed by Group Theatre director Lee Strasberg and became known as The Method or Method Acting. Odets eventually became the Group's primary playwright.

Career

Theatre

Odets pursued acting with great passion and ingenuity. At the age of 19 he struck out on his own, billing himself as "The Rover Reciter." Under this moniker he procured bookings as a radio elocutionist. He moved away from his parents, to Greenwich Village, where he acted with the Poet's Theatre under the direction of Village legend Harry Kemp. Odets claimed to have become America's first real disc jockey at about this time, at radio station WBNY, as well as a drama critic. In this capacity he saw the 1926 Broadway production of Seán O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. O'Casey's work would prove to be a powerful influence on Odets as a playwright.

The young Odets spent several summers as a dramatics counselor at camps in the Catskills and the Poconos. He toured extensively with stock companies, playing a large variety of roles. Odets got his Broadway break in 1929, when he was cast as understudy to Spencer Tracy in Conflict by Vincent Lawrence. Odets landed his first job with the prestigious Theatre Guild in the fall of 1929, as an extra playing bit parts. He acted in small roles in a number of Theatre Guild productions between 1929 and 1931. It was at the Theatre Guild that he befriended the casting director, Cheryl Crawford. Crawford suggested that Harold Clurman, then a play reader for the Guild, invite Odets to a meeting to discuss new theatre concepts they were developing with Lee Strasberg. Odets was mesmerized by Clurman's talks, and became the last actor chosen for the Group Theatre's first summer of rehearsals in June, 1931, at Brookfield Center in Connecticut.

From the start, Odets was relegated to small roles and understudying other actors. He understudied lead actor Luther Adler during the Group Theatre's production of John Howard Lawson's Success Story, during the 1932-33 season. Much to Odets' frustration, Adler never missed a performance. With the extra time on his hands and at Clurman's urging, Odets began to write plays. Like Lawson, a member of the Communist Party, Odets was influenced by Marxism and his writing became overtly political. Odets credited Lawson with giving him an understanding of the power of colloquial language. Odets wrote two early plays, an autobiographical piece entitled 910 Eden Street, and one about his hero, Beethoven, entitled "Victory." Clurman dismissed these two plays as juvenilia, but encouraged his friend to continue writing while steering him towards familiar milieus. In late 1932, Odets began writing a play about a middle-class Jewish family in the Bronx, initially called I Got the Blues. He worked diligently on this play, sharing drafts of it with Clurman and promising parts to his fellow actors – often the same parts. While at Green Mansions, their 1933 summer rehearsal venue in Warrensburg, New York, the Group performed Act II of the play, now retitled Awake and Sing!, for other camp residents. The audience was enthusiastic, but the Group's leadership, Lee Strasberg in particular, was still, at this point, opposed to producing it.

Odets trained with the Group at their various summer rehearsal headquarters located in the Connecticut countryside and in the Catskills. In addition to Brookfield Center and Green Mansions, these venues included Dover Furnace in Dutchess County (1932) and a large house in Ellenville, New York (1934). The Group spent the summer of 1936 at Pine Brook Country Club in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Their final summer retreat was at Lake Grove, in Smithtown, New York, in 1939. Odets' Group training under Strasberg's tutelage was essential to his development as a playwright. He stated in an interview late in life that "My chief influence as a playwright was the Group Theatre acting company, and being a member of that company ... And you can see the Group Theatre acting technique crept right into the plays."

Odets' first play to be produced was the one-act Waiting for Lefty, on January 5, 1935, at the former Civic Repertory Theatre on Fourteenth Street in New York City. The piece is a series of interconnected scenes depicting workers for a fictional taxi company, but inspired by an actual taxi strike. The focus alternates between the drivers' union meeting and vignettes from the workers' difficult and oppressed lives. Not all are taxi drivers. A young medical intern falls victim to anti-Semitism; a laboratory assistant's job is threatened if he doesn't comply with orders to spy on a colleague; couples are thwarted in marriage and torn apart by the hopelessness of economic conditions caused by the Depression. The climax is a defiant call for the union to strike, which brought the entire opening night audience to its feet. The play can be performed in any acting space, including union meeting halls and on the street. Waiting for Lefty's unexpectedly wild success brought Odets international fame.

Awake and Sing!, finally produced by the Group Theatre in February 1935, is generally regarded as Odets' masterpiece. It has been cited as "the earliest quintessential Jewish play outside the Yiddish theatre." The play concerns the Berger family, living in the Bronx under the shadow of economic collapse. Odets's choice of opening the play in media res, his dialogue style, and the fact that it was the first play on Broadway to focus entirely on a Jewish family, distinguish Awake and Sing! from other full-length plays of its time.

The 1935 one-acts Waiting for Lefty and Till the Day I Die, along with a number of other plays produced by the Group Theatre, are harsh criticisms of profiteers and exploitative economic systems during the Great Depression. These two early plays by Odets have been dismissed by some critics as left-wing propaganda. More commonly, however, Waiting for Lefty is considered iconic in the agitprop genre, and the piece is widely anthologized. Odets asserted that all of his plays deal with the human spirit persevering in the face of any opponent, whether or not the characters are depicted as struggling with the capitalist system. The highly successful Golden Boy (1937) portrays a young man torn between artistic and material fulfillment. Ironically, it was the Group Theatre's biggest commercial success. From Golden Boy on, Odets' work focused more on the dynamics of interpersonal relationships as affected by the moral dilemmas of individual characters. In 1938 the Group presented Odets' Rocket to the Moon, a more reflective piece. Leftist critics rebuked Odets for abandoning his formerly overt political stance. The playwright George S. Kaufman queried, "Odets, where is thy sting?" Nonetheless, Rocket to the Moon garnered enough attention to place Odets on the cover of Time magazine in December 1938.

Odets' 1950 play, The Country Girl, was a critical and box office success. It was adapted for a film starring Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. Both actors earned Academy Award nominations for their performances. Kelly went on to win the Oscar as Best Actress for her work in the film, and screenwriter George Seaton received an Oscar for his adaptation. Odets' last play, The Flowering Peach, was produced on Broadway in 1954. The Flowering Peach was the preferred choice of the Pulitzer Prize jury in 1955, but under pressure from Joseph Pulitzer Jr., the prize went instead to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which the jury considered the weakest of the five shortlisted nominees.

Four of Odets' plays – Golden Boy, Clash by Night, The Big Knife and The Country Girl – have been made into films, though Odets did not write the screenplays.

Hollywood

The success of Odets's early plays attracted the attention of Hollywood producers. He first went to Hollywood in early 1936 to write for the screen as well as the stage. From this point on he would spend most of his life in Hollywood. His initial intention was to make money to help subsidize the Group Theatre's run of his late-1935 play Paradise Lost and to help him fulfill his own financial obligations. His first screenplay was produced by Paramount and directed by Lewis Milestone. Starring Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carroll, The General Died at Dawn (1936) received some positive reviews, though Frank Nugent of the New York Times reiterated Kaufman's barb in his article's title.

Like most screenwriters of the time, Odets worked within the studio system until the advent of independent production in the 1950s. Thus Odets would often write drafts for films such as Rhapsody in Blue and It's a Wonderful Life that were handed off to another screenwriter or team for further development. Odets declined to be credited for many of the films on which he worked. He did, however, accept full credit as both screenwriter and director for None but the Lonely Heart (1944), adapted from the novel by Richard Llewellyn, and produced by RKO. The film starred Cary Grant, Ethel Barrymore (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), Barry Fitzgerald, and Jane Wyatt.

Odets wrote the 1957 screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success, based on the novelette by Ernest Lehman and produced by the independent company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. Starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, this film noir depicts the underbelly of the newspaper world. The character of J.J. Hunsecker, played by Lancaster, was voted the 35th most despicable villain in 100 years of film by the American Film Institute. Odets directed one other film, for which he also wrote the screenplay, The Story on Page One (1959).




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