Nicholas Kazan: Laughter in the Dark

Being raised in the shadow of his famous director father, Elia Kazan, may have helped screenwriter Nicholas Kazan develop the mordantly humorous edge that marks his own distinctive voice. And now that his career has emerged from respected but persistent obscurity with the Oscar-nominated Reversal Of Fortune, he's bringing that voice to big-budget Hollywood pictures like Mobsters.

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Nick Kazan's screenplays-edgy, terse, bleakly funny-almost always tap into the unconscious. They're peculiarly, nightmarishly American, like some Doors songs, only in Kazan, the giggles are there by design. In virtually all his work filmed to date, the family is a breeding ground of suspicion, thwarted sexual desire, and betrayal. He co-wrote Frances, in which a movie star runs mad from telling too much truth until her mother orders her lobotomized.

In At Close Range, a riveting sociopathic father seduces his kids into a crime spree, then tries to slaughter them. In Reversal of Fortune, the riddle of whether Claus von Bulow did or did not inject his wife into a coma becomes the context for a cinematic investigation into the un-knowability of human motivation, particularly within the family. In the unproduced Punk Daddy--Kazan's Oedipus Rex for the children of MTV and David Lynch-a son snuffs his papa and stuffs the corpse in a sofa. In the finale of The Professional Man, the short Kazan directed and adapted for HBO from a David Goodis story, a hired killer strangles himself to death while his girlfriend stands nearby.

So much of Kazan's early film work was either mishandled or co-credited that he has had to wait for audiences to see and hear how truly funny the monstrous can be when it's run through his brain. Reversal of Fortune, however, which won him both Oscar and Writers Guild nominations, and got him named Screenwriter of the Year by the National Association of Theater Owners, finally gave us a chance to see and hear Kazan straight, no chaser. And in the wake of Reversal of Fortune, Hollywood appears to have realized that mainstream commercial movies might benefit from the same intelligence, ingenuity and charged sensibility Kazan has brought to his screen-plays from the start. He was hired to rewrite the young, serious, and big-studio Mobsters and the upcoming Gladiator. And he might be signed on to direct his script The Ride-Along.

Born in New York, Nick is the son of Elia Kazan, a Greek-Turkish immigrant who joined the Communist party, directed the great, socially aware On the Waterfront, East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd, Wild River, and Splendor in the Grass, and, in 1952, named names of fellow Communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Nick and his siblings-two sisters, a brother, a half-brother-are all relegated in their father's 825-page autobiography to the status of virtual footnotes.) After writing several plays in college, one of which, the one-act Ballgame, was professionally produced later, Nick Kazan moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where five more of his one-act plays and a full-length piece were mounted. Earning his living as a journalist, he worked as a stringer for Newsweek and wrote for The San Francisco Examiner, but his mordant, taboo-busting style is perhaps best typified by his satirical "confessional" piece in The Realist about how he slipped into the White House and slept with Tricia Nixon.

Kazan has yet to make headlines for multimillion dollar sales of the boy action-type scripts that get Hollywood all in a lather. He leaves to Shane Black The Last Boy Scout, to foe Eszterhas the Basic Instinct cops and copulation stuff, to their agents the gusty hype. Instead, Kazan-belatedly, quietly-has joined the ranks of such in-demand, handsomely-paid writers of substance as Ron Bass (Rain Man), Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society), and Richard Price (Sea of Love). If he succeeds in firing up commercial entertainments with the anarchic temperament of an original--think Sirk, Wilder, Hitchcock--he will achieve the status of a very major player.

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