Oscar Directors: Kazan, Elia

This year marks the centenary of the supremely talented, endlessly controversial Elia Kazan, one of the most accomplished American directors of the 1950s.  In the next several months, we will evaluate his career and politics and run lengthy reviews, old and new, of each of his pictures.


See review of Kazan’s first film, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945) on the Home Page. 

Born Elia Kazanjoglou, on September 7, 1909 in Constantinople (now Istanbul), he was four when his Greek parents immigrated to the U.S. and settled in New York City, where his father worked as a rug merchant.

 

After graduating from Williams College, Kazan attended the drama department at Yale and in 1932 joined the Group Theatre as an actor and assistant stage manager. He directed his first play in 1935, and soon became established as one of Broadway’s finest directors with such productions as “The Skin of Our Teeth” (1942), “One Touch of Venus” (1943), “Jacobowsky and the Colonel” (1944), “All My Sons” (1947), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947), and “Death of a Salesman” (1949).

 

He made his last stage appearance as an actor in 1941, and in 1940 and 1941 played supporting roles in two films, “City for Conquest” and “Blues in the Night.”

 

Kazan’s interest in the cinema dates to 1937, when he directed “The People of the Cumberland,” a documentary short about Tennessee miners.  After a feature-length docu about food rationing, “It’s Up to You” (1941), made for the US Department of Agriculture, Kazan began directing features films in 1945.

 

Though his early pictures were solid and were well received by critics and the public, they were too deeply rooted in Kazan’s theatrical background and showed limited use of cinema’s unique properties as a visual medium.

 

His debut film, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), a sensitive adaptation of Betty Smith’s novel, boasted fine performances, including Oscar-winning turns by James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner.  Kazan won the Directing Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), which was considered at the time a bold indictment of anti-Semitism. However, viewed from today’s perspective, it’s too naïve and simple. “Gentleman’s Agreement” also won the best film Oscar and best supporting actress for Celeste Holm.

 

“Pinky” (1949), an early racial drama about a light-skinned black girl (Jeanne Crain) passing for white, was marked by excellent performances but seems static and tame in retrospect.

 

“Boomerang” (1947), an obstruction of justice political thriller energized, was energized by a semi-documentary style that indicated Kazan’s growing knowledge of the film medium.   “Panic in the Streets” (1950), a taut thriller with a social message that went beyond its plague?scare plot, was shot on location around New Orleans.

 

Meanwhile, Kazan continued working in the American the­ater. In 1947, he co?founded the Actors Studio, which developed “the Method” and a group of intense new actors, such as Monty Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean, all of whom would appear in his pictures.

 

Kazan, who had directed Brando in the suc­cessful 1947 Broadway production of “A Streetcar named Desire,” flaunted again Brando’s brooding, explosive talent in the 1951 screen version of that play as well as in two other films, the mediocre “Viva Zapata!” (1952) and the superlative On the Waterfront (1954).

Powerful and electrifying, “Street­car” was interesting for many things, including the different acting styles used by Brando as Kowalski and Vivien Leigh as Blanche. Zapata showed greater skills in building atmo­sphere and using physical locations. Kazan thought of Zapata as his first true discovery of the medium.

 

“On the Waterfront,” is one of Kazan’s bets films, a powerful, grim drama of corruption on the docks of New York, which integrated the realism of the location photography with the naturalism of the acting to achieve an intensely moving picture. Brando won the Oscar Award for his role as Terry Malloy; Eva Marie Saint the Supporting actress Oscar for her tender portrayal of Edie Doyle; and Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb were all nominated for their excellent performances. On the Waterfront won the Best Picture Oscar and Kazan was named Best Director.

 

Some cri
tics saw in “On the Waterfront” an attempt by Kazan to defend the testimony he had given two years earlier to the House Un?American Activi­ties Committee, in which he admitted former membership in the Communist party and named names, reversing a previous “unfriendly” stand.  The director himself acknowledged similar­ities between his ambivalence and Terry Mal­loy’s conflicting loyalties.

 

“East of Eden” (1955), considered by many (not me) Kazan’s best film, stunned moviegoers with the acting talent of James Dean, who was nomi­nated for an Oscar Award; Jo Van Fleet won the Supporting actress Oscar.  Kazan handled complex characters and plot with meticulous attention, showing masterful control over his first color and wide­screen production.

 

With “Baby Doll” (1956), “A Face in the Crowd” (1957), “Wild River” (1960), and “Splendor in the Grass” (1961) Kazan continue to coax great performances from his casts, particularly Carrol Baker and Natalie Wood, who did their best work to date.

The film “America, America” (1963) sig­naled a new phase in Kazan’s career, an expression of his personal world and roots. The film was based on his 1961 novel depicting the trials and tribulations of an uncle’s odyssey from Turkey to America.  In 1969, Kazan made his second personal film, “The Arrangement,” from his own second novel, which was a success, but the film was a failure.

 

In 1972 be published his third novel, The Assassins, and returned to filmmaking with “The Visitors,” about the violent heritage of the Vietnam War which he made around his home on a small budget from a script by his son Chris.  He went back to Hollywood in 1976 for the making of The Last Tycoon, his last film, which was a resounding failure.

 

Kazan published three additional novels, The Understudy (1974), Act of Love (1978), and The Anatolian (1982), and a revelatory autobiography: Elia Kazan: A Life (1988).

 

In 1983, he was honored with Life Achievement by the Kennedy Center, and in 1999, he received an Honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an act that irritated many industry members and filmgoers.