Manos Hadjidakis as remembered by Elia Kazan

[From Elia Kazan's "A LIFE" (Knopf, 1988), pp. 658-659]

AMERICA AMERICA is now my favorite of the films I've made, but early in 1963, when I was editing it with Dede Allen, I had doubts about its worth. Then, when I needed luck, I got it. Manos Hadjidakis came my way from Athens and bolstered me, first by his help in finishing the film --the last five percent of the work on a movie is often the difference between success and failure--but even more by his confidence in the worth of what I showed him. Manos was a king that year; he was also a man perhaps excessively devoted to his mother, who'd lost his four front teeth and never bothered to replace them. He was plump--I don't mean gross--and when the occasion called for it, given to releases of a terrible temper during which his whole bulk shook. He was also a genius.

Most composers who work on films, when a director doesn't like what they propose, become contentious and, one way or another, hold on to what they have already put forward. Some will sulk. If I didn't like a tune Manos offered me, he'd make a quick gesture of dismissal with his plump hand, discarding what he'd suggested. If we were conferring in a bar, he'd ask me what kind of thing I wanted, spread out a paper napkin, draw five quick parallel lines, and scribble a melody. Quickly he'd have a solution for me, so I became bolder about making my contrary wishes known. Manos believed that it was the treatment, not the melody, that mattered. At his orchestra rehearsals, sitting at a piano, he'd sketch the basic melody for the musicians he'd brought together, then walk from one to another, telling each instrument where to come in with what, and in a short time, standing on his feet, he made his arrangement. This method of work has its advantages; it allows the composer and his instrumentalists to exchange reactions and make suggestions. It is built on one talent's faith in another. As a director, I understood. I called it improvisation.

Manos was not only a composer, he was a dramatist, and his sense of where the drama was, how to reinforce it, how to join various episodes so they'd have the most effect, surpassed my own. He also had the most overwhelming joy in working and in his work; it was easy for him, and once he started, he was like all the other geniuses I've known, a compulsive hard worker. He'd earned his success the hard way. The old saying that genius is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration underestimates the importance of relentless effort. But work doesn't describe what these men do. There is a blacking out of everything else in their lives; it's all secondary--love, greed, pleasure, family. The work experience is what they want from life. They don't know how to "unwind," nor do they want to.

Necessarily there is an intense selfishness and arrogance about the men called geniuses, and there was about Manos. I've been called arrogant and selfish and self-centered, and I'm not, by any stretch of the imagination, a genius, but I've borne the accusation--if that's what it is--and my answer is: "Why not?" What's more important, who's worth more among us? Let the common man put up and suffer. A person of talent who can function with that talent is the finest thing on earth and the only answer to the old question: Who is man and why is man and what is man supposed to be? Manos did not tolerate any interference with how he wanted what he'd composed to sound. His musicians were terrified of him, and again, why not? So were Toscanini's. It helped the end result.

Men called geniuses have been the joy of my existence--but I didn't know them as geniuses. All those I've known and worked with--Aaron Copland, Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, Harold Clurman, Orson Welles, Marlon Brando--have a joyous intensity in work and have passed it on to me. They are blessed. Along with all the other sparks, they all have great laughs. Laughing comes easy for them because life is what they want it to be; they are what they want to be, doing what they want to do. They don't question their worth. They no longer respond to disapproval. Manos never, not once, showed any hesitation about what he wanted or what I'd think of it. He did wonderful things for my film at a time when the film most needed that contribution.

All the above is skipping over the essential question: Are these people born with the divine gift or do they acquire it? Granted they work harder than others, granted that their lives have usually been richer and, therefore, better soil for growth, granted that there is some special eagerness about them and usually an especially strong energy--granted all this, how does the phenomenon called a genius come to be?

I don't know. But this I have noticed about people with mysterious gifts: In many cases, a wound has been inflicted early in life, which impels the person to strive harder or makes him or her extrasensitive. The talent, the genius, is the scab on the wound, there to protect a weak place, an opening to death; that's how it came to be. These are our heroes, those who have overcome what the rest of the race yields to with self-pity and many excuses. When I've worked with men and women who came successfully out of misfortune, I've found that they have strength that is extraordinary, and their strength is a gift to me. So it's been, not only with Manos, but with other talented composers and with the actors and particularly the actresses I've worked with. Their precious gifts, for which they paid in pain, have made me successful when I was successful. I've relied on their talent; it's the essence of what I've needed most from the rest of the race.

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