Clifford Odets | Critical Review by David Denby

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Clifford Odets.
This section contains 808 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by David Denby

SOURCE: "Odd Man In," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXV, No. 14, September 29, 1988, pp. 37-42.

In the following excerpt, Denby reviews The Time is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets, and comments on Odets's personal revelations at the beginning of a career slide.

Clifford Odets, [Elia] Kazan's friend and colleague in the Group, had such a mission [an artist's] and was ruined. In love with the theater but eager to make money, Odets dragged himself unhappily through long years in Hollywood, often working on screenplays never filmed or on anonymous rewrites of other men's work (at the end of his life. be was writing a television series for the actor Richard Boone). The journal he kept in 1940, now published by Grove Press as The Time is Ripe, suggests how much the movies attracted and shamed him. In the course of the year (he is thirty-three at the beginning of it) the Group, beginning to lose its way, failed with its New York production of his play Night Music. Odets then traveled to Los Angeles to write a screen adaptation of the play (never made). He was earning $2,500 a week. He was restless, with little to do but work, drink, and sleep with the actress Fay Wray, and he quickly came back.

The year was a turning point for him. No longer the famous young playwright whose picture had been on the cover of Time two years before, be had begun his excruciating career as a famous American has-been.

The Time is Ripe is an emotional record of Broadway, 1940, as a vale of soul-making. Fascinated by Casanova and Stendhal and Byron, Odets made breathless notation of his erotic triumphs, mixing rhapsodic ardor with homely notes of the bachelor life:

Home I came to write on the trio play. And yet this goddam acute loneliness makes me leave the telephone on, hoping that by accident someone may call. And then the phone rang!… She came here in record time, whereupon we fell upon each other and slept and awoke and chatted and massacred each other again and again and then she fell asleep and I prowled around the house unable to sleep until past ten in the morning, she stained and scented beside me with all the exercises of the night.

There are many girls, some famous, some not; much restless driving around the city late at night; and, on every page, amid the lyricism, descriptions of his friends and himself almost painful in their harshness. Idealistic, impassioned, and fatally lacking in canniness, even routine common sense, Odets demonstrates in this journal the intoxicating sweetness and seriousness of his famous conversation (by reputation, he was one of the best talkers of his time). He was a prodigious autodidact, and he had caught art fever that year, reading Stendhal, Gide, Heine, and Strindberg, gearing himself up with long stretches of Beethoven on the record player—more than one beautiful young woman was forced to listen to the late piano sonatas before climbing into bed.

The journal details plans for projected plays about Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Woodrow Wilson, and reveals why he had so much trouble completing anything. Piety and frivolity were so ruinously mixed in Odets's nature that he could not begin to write without episodes of exaltation (Beethoven and more Beethoven) yet could not work seriously without stopping to run out and meet, say, Leonard Lyons or Walter Winchell at a nightclub. Returning home from the Stork Club at dawn, exhausted and guilty, he would write for an hour or so before falling asleep. Inspiration, raised in Odets's journal to a fetish, required the constant celebration of scribes and photographers.

He knew he was turning himself into a fool. "This living from the jowls and testicles is murderous for me. It engulfs me, a man with an essentially religious purpose and use in life, a sort of sunken cathedral of a person." The actor Lionel Stander said to him in a club one night: "You are a first-class man. What are you doing with these nitwits?" On the other hand, Odets got something useful out of the nitwits—the dialogue he added, years later, to Ernest Lehman's screenplay for The Sweet Smell of Success, an acrid portrait of columnists and press agents prowling the corrupt New York night world. But his own play about his Hollywood experience, The Big Knife, was overblown and self-pitying. Like many other serious writers, he thought the movies were childish but had great difficulty mastering the peculiar skill of screenwriting. At one of Dorothy Parker's cocktail parties, he sees the moldering figure of F. Scott Fitzgerald—"pale, unhealthy, as if the tension of life had been wrenched out of him." It is a meeting sad to imagine—one writer drawing near the end of his Hollywood martyrdom, the other beginning his long descent.

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This section contains 808 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by David Denby
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