Directed by Elia Kazan - 1/2, 1/9 & 1/16
Elia Kazan was a dominant director in both theater and film in the mid-20th Century, shepherding the emergence of the method acting style of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, and others. He was widely honored during his career, his movies alone earning 22 Academy Awards and 62 nominations. Yet he also proved to be a polarizing figure when, in 1952, he appeared as a friendly witness for the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigation into Communist influence in Hollywood. The reverberations of Kazan's testimony were felt as late as the 1999 Oscar® ceremony, where the presentation of an Honorary Award was greeted by standing ovations from some in the audience and by stony silence from others who refused to rise from their seats.
Kazan was born in 1909 in Turkey, of Greek parents. His father was a rug merchant who moved his family to New York City when Kazan was 4 years old. After attending Williams College and Yale, Kazan acted with New York's Group Theater with such other future luminaries as Lee Strasberg and Clifford Odets. The Group developed a realistic acting style based on the techniques of Constantin Stanislavsky. Kazan turned his attention to directing for the stage, and in the 1940s became one of the greatest talents on Broadway. Among his many stage triumphs were Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), Arthur Miller's All My Sons (1947), Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Miller's Death of a Salesman (1948), Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy (1953), Archibald MacLeish's J. B. (1958), and Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). In 1947 Kazan co-founded the influential Actor's Studio, where the techniques of method acting were taught and refined.
Kazan's first major brush with Hollywood was as an actor. Screen tests of several of the Group Theater players in the late 1930s resulted in notable supporting roles for Kazan in two films for Warner Bros. In 1940 he appeared as a hood in the 1940 James Cagney film City for Conquest followed by a turn as a jazz musician in Anatole Litvak's Blues in the Night (1941).
Kazan had directed a documentary short about the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1937 (The People of the Cumberland), but his feature directing debut was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1945. Kazan directed three films in 1947 - The Sea of Grass, a Western melodrama for MGM starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; Boomerang!, a taut Film Noir with Dana Andrews; and Gentleman's Agreement, for which he won his first Oscar® as Best Director. He continued to divide his time between the stage and films during the 1950s, when he helped change the film-acting landscape by directing Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), and On the Waterfront (1954); James Dean in East of Eden (1955); and Karl Malden and Eli Wallach in Baby Doll (1956). Kazan also memorably directed the newcomer Andy Griffith as a media-savvy climber in A Face in the Crowd (1957).
Following Wild River (1960), a closer examination of the TVA project starring Montgomery Clift, and the William Inge drama Splendor in the Grass (1961), starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, Kazan's film work slowed as he turned to writing novels and his memoirs. His final films included America, America (1963), a highly personal account of his family's emigration to the United States; and The Last Tycoon (1976), an ambitious Harold Pinter adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel about a young Thalberg-esque movie mogul, played in the film by Robert De Niro.
Kazan died in 2003 at age 94. He lived long enough to see his reputation undiminished over time - both his reputation as one of the greatest directors of acting to work in American film and theater, and his reputation as a controversial and dividing figure for the stance he took during the blacklisting era of a half-century earlier.
by John M. Miller