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Elia Kazan, c. 1960
September 7, 1909
Istanbul, Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey)
|Died||September 28, 2003 (aged 94)|
Manhattan, New York City, United States
|Occupation||Director, actor, producer, screenwriter and novelist|
|Spouse(s)||Molly Day Thacher|
(m. 1932–1963; her death)
(m. 1967–1980; her death)
(m. 1982–2003; his death)
Elia Kazan, c. 1960
September 7, 1909
Istanbul, Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey)
|Died||September 28, 2003 (aged 94)|
Manhattan, New York City, United States
|Occupation||Director, actor, producer, screenwriter and novelist|
|Spouse(s)||Molly Day Thacher|
(m. 1932–1963; her death)
(m. 1967–1980; her death)
(m. 1982–2003; his death)
Elia Kazan (born Elias Kazantzoglou, Greek: Ηλίας Καζαντζόγλου; Turkish: Elias Kazancıoğlu; September 7, 1909 – September 28, 2003) was a Greek-American director, producer, writer and actor, described by The New York Times as "one of the most honored and influential directors in Broadway and Hollywood history". He was born in Constantinople (present day Istanbul), Ottoman Empire, to ethnic Greek parents. After studying acting at Yale, he acted professionally for eight years, later joining the Group Theater in 1932, and co-founded the Actors Studio in 1947. With Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford, he introduced Method acting to the American stage and cinema as a new form of self-expression and psychological "realism." Kazan acted in only a few films, including City for Conquest (1940).
Kazan introduced a new generation of unknown young actors to the movie audiences, including Marlon Brando and James Dean. Noted for drawing out the best dramatic performances from his actors, he directed 21 actors to Oscar nominations, resulting in nine wins. He became "one of the consummate filmmakers of the 20th century" after directing a string of successful films, including, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), and East of Eden (1955). During his career, he won two Oscars as Best Director and received an Honorary Oscar, won three Tony Awards, and four Golden Globes. Among the other actors he introduced to movie audiences were Warren Beatty, Carroll Baker, Julie Harris, Andy Griffith, Lee Remick, Rip Torn, Eli Wallach, Eva Marie Saint, Martin Balsam, Fred Gwynne, and Pat Hingle.
His films were concerned with personal or social issues of special concern to him. Kazan writes, "I don't move unless I have some empathy with the basic theme." His first such "issue" film was Gentleman's Agreement (1947), with Gregory Peck, which dealt with anti-Semitism in America. It received 8 Oscar nominations and 3 wins, including Kazan's first for Best Director. It was followed by Pinky, one of the first films to address racial prejudice against blacks. In 1954, he directed On the Waterfront, a film about union corruption on the New York harbor waterfront, which some consider "one of the greatest films in the history of international cinema." A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), an adaptation of the stage play which he had also directed, received 12 Oscar nominations, winning 4, and was Marlon Brando's breakthrough role. In 1955, he directed John Steinbeck's East of Eden, which introduced James Dean to movie audiences, making him an overnight star.
A turning point in Kazan's career came with his testimony as a "friendly witness" before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 at the time of the Hollywood blacklist, which brought him strong negative reactions from many liberal friends and colleagues. Kazan later explained that he took "only the more tolerable of two alternatives that were either way painful and wrong." Kazan influenced the films of the 1950s and '60s with his provocative, issue-driven subjects. Director Stanley Kubrick called him, "without question, the best director we have in America, [and] capable of performing miracles with the actors he uses.":36 Film author Ian Freer concludes that "if his achievements are tainted by political controversy, the debt Hollywood—and actors everywhere—owes him is enormous." In 2010, Martin Scorsese co-directed the documentary film A Letter to Elia as a personal tribute to Kazan.
Elia Kazan was born in the Phanar district of Istanbul, then the capital of the Ottoman Empire, to Greek parents originally from Kayseri in Anatolia. His parents, George and Athena Kazantzoglou (née Shishmanoglou), emigrated to the United States when he was four years old. He was named after his paternal grandfather, Elia Kazantzoglou. His maternal grandfather was Isaak Shishmanoglou. Elia's brother, Avraam, was born in Berlin and later became a psychiatrist.:21
As a young boy, he was remembered as being shy, and his college classmates described him as more of a loner. Much of his early life was portrayed in his autobiographical book, America America, which he made into a film in 1963. In it, he describes his family as "alienated" from both their parents' Greek Orthodox values and from those of mainstream America.:23 His mother's family were cotton merchants who imported cotton from England, and sold it wholesale. His father became a rug merchant after emigrating to the United States, and expected that his son would go into the family business.
After attending public schools in New York, he enrolled at Williams College in Massachusetts, where he helped pay his way by waiting tables and washing dishes, although he still graduated cum laude. He also worked as a bartender at various fraternities, but never joined one. While a student at Williams, he earned the nickname "Gadg," for gadget, because, he said, "I was small, compact, and handy to have around."
In his book and later film by the same title, America America, he tells how, and why, his family left Turkey and moved to America. Kazan notes that much of it came from stories that he heard as a young boy. He says during an interview that "it's all true: the wealth of the family was put on the back of a donkey, and my uncle, really still a boy, went to Istanbul ... to gradually bring the family there to escape the oppressive circumstances... It's also true that he lost the money on the way, and when he got there he swept rugs in a little store."
Kazan notes some of the controversial aspects of what he put in the film. He writes, "I used to say to myself when I was making the film that America was a dream of total freedom in all areas." To make his point, the character who portrays Kazan's uncle Avraam, kisses the ground when he gets through customs, while the Statue of Liberty and the American flag are in the background. Kazan had considered whether that kind of scene might be too much for American audiences:
Before undertaking the film, Kazan wanted to confirm many of the details about his family's background. At one point, he sat his parents down and recorded their answers to his questions. He remembers eventually asking his father a "deeper question: 'Why America? What were you hoping for?'" His mother gave him the answer, however: "A.E. brought us here." Kazan states that "A.E. was my uncle Avraam Elia, the one who left the Anatolian village with the donkey. At twenty-eight, somehow—this was the wonder—he made his way to New York. He sent home money and in time brought my father over. Father sent for my mother and my baby brother and me when I was four.
Kazan writes of the movie, "It's my favorite of all the films I've made; the first film that was entirely mine."
In 1932, after spending two years at the Yale University School of Drama, he moved to New York City to become a professional stage actor. His first opportunity came with a small group of actors engaged in presenting plays containing “social commentary”. They were called the Group Theater, which showcased many lesser known plays with deep social or political messages. After struggling to be accepted by them, he discovered his first strong sense of self in America within the "family of the Group Theater, and more loosely in the radical social and cultural movements of the time," writes film author Joanna E. Rapf.:23
In Kazan's autobiography, Kazan writes of the "lasting impact on him of the Group," noting in particular, Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman as "father figures", along with his close friendship with playwright Clifford Odets. Kazan, during an interview with Michel Ciment, describes the Group:
Kazan, in his autobiography, also describes Strasberg as a vital leader of the group:
Kazan's first national success came as New York theatrical director. Although initially he worked as an actor on stage, and told early in his acting career that he had no acting ability, he surprised many critics by becoming one of the Group’s most capable actors. In 1935 he played the role of a strike-leading taxi driver in a drama by Clifford Odets, Waiting for Lefty, and his performance was called "dynamic," leading some to describe him as the "proletarian thunderbolt.":23
Among the themes that would run through all of his work were "personal alienation and an outrage over social injustice", writes film critic William Baer. Other critics have likewise noted his "strong commitment to the social and social psychological—rather than the purely political—implications of drama".:33
By the mid-1930s, when he was 26, he began directing a number of the Group Theater's plays. In 1942 he achieved his first notable success by directing a Pulitzer prize-winning play by Thornton Wilder, The Skin of Our Teeth, starring Montgomery Clift and Tallulah Bankhead. He then went on to direct Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, and then directed A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams. Kazan's wife, Molly Thacher, the reader for the Group, discovered Williams and awarded him a "prize that launched his career."
The Group Theater's summer rehearsal headquarters was at Pine Brook Country Club, located in the countryside of Nichols, Connecticut, during the 1930s and early 1940s. Along with Kazan were numerous other artists: Harry Morgan, John Garfield, Luise Rainer, Frances Farmer, Will Geer, Howard Da Silva, Clifford Odets, Lee J. Cobb and Irwin Shaw.
In 1947, he founded the Actors Studio, a non-profit workshop, with actors Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford. It soon became famous for promoting "Method," a style of theater and acting involving "total immersion of actor into character," writes film author Ian Freer. According to Rapf, "the Studio rode the bandwagon of method fashionability, and Kazan was its clear star and attraction.":97 Within a short time, as word spread, "everyone wanted to be at the Studio—not least because of the chance of being in a Kazan production in one medium or another.":97
Among its first students were Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Julie Harris, Eli Wallach, Karl Malden, Patricia Neal, Mildred Dunnock, James Whitmore, and Maureen Stapleton. In 1951, Lee Strasberg became its director, and it remained a non-profit enterprise, eventually considered "the nation's most prestigious acting school," according to film historian James Lipton.
Student James Dean, in a letter home to his parents, writes that Actors Studio was "the greatest school of the theater [and] the best thing that can happen to an actor". Playwright Tennessee Williams said of its actors: "They act from the inside out. They communicate emotions they really feel. They give you a sense of life." Contemporary directors like Sidney Lumet, a former student, have intentionally used actors such as Al Pacino, a former student skilled in "Method".
Kazan directed one of the Studio's brightest young talents, Marlon Brando, in the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire. He cast him again in the film version in 1951, which made Brando a star and won 4 Oscars, and was nominated for 12.
Among the other Broadway plays he directed were "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", "Sweet Bird of Youth", "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" and "Tea and Sympathy", This led some, such as theater critic Eric Bentley, to write that "the work of Elia Kazan means more to the American theater than that of any current writer." Film critic David Richard Jones adds that Kazan, during the 1940s and 1950s, was one of America's foremost Stanislavskians, and "influenced thousands of contemporaries" in the theatre, film, and the Actors Studio that he helped found.
At the height of his stage success, Kazan then turned to Hollywood where he soon demonstrated equal skill as director of motion pictures. He first directed two short films, but his first feature film was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), one his first attempts to film dramas focused on contemporary concerns, which became his forte. Two years later he directed Gentleman's Agreement, where he tackled a seldom-discussed topic in America, antisemitism, for which he won his first Oscar as Best Director. In 1949 he again dealt with controversial subject when he directed Pinky, which dealt with issues of racism in America, and was nominated for 3 Academy Awards.
In 1947, he directed the courtroom drama Boomerang!, and in 1950 he directed Panic in the Streets, starring Richard Widmark, in a thriller shot on the streets of New Orleans. In that film, Kazan experimented with a documentary style of cinematography, which succeeded in "energizing" the action scenes. He won the Venice Film Festival, International Award as director, and the film also won two Academy Awards. Kazan had requested that Zero Mostel also act in the film, despite Mostel being "blacklisted" as a result of HUAC testimony a few years earlier. Kazan writes of his decision:
In 1951, after introducing and directing one of the Actors Studio's brightest young talents, Marlon Brando, in the stage version, he went on to cast him in film version of the play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which made Brando a star and won 4 Oscars, being nominated for 12. The film popularized Method acting with Brando's role as the earthy and unmannered Stanley Kowalski opposite the classical dignity of British actress, Vivien Leigh, as his sister-in-law. Despite the plaudits, the film was considered a step back cinematically with the feel of filmed theater, however Kazan did at first use a more open setting but then felt compelled to revert to the stage atmosphere to remain true to the script. He explains:
Brando's role as a virtually unknown actor at age 27, would "catapult him to stardom." His next film was Viva Zapata! (1952) which also starred Marlon Brando playing the role of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. The film added real atmosphere with the use of location shots and strong character accents. Kazan called this his "first real film" because of those factors.
In 1954 he again used Brando as co-star in On the Waterfront. As a continuation of the socially relevant themes that he developed in New York, the film exposed corruption within New York’s longshoremen’s union. It too was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, but won 8, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, for Marlon Brando. To some critics, Brando gives the "best performance in American film history," playing an ex-boxer, Terry Malloy, who is persuaded by a priest to inform on corrupt unions. Surprisingly, Brando writes that he was actually disappointed with his acting upon first watching the screening:
Actor Karl Malden became an early student at the Group Theater in 1937, where he first began acting under Kazan's direction. Kazan would play a "prominent role in Malden's stage and film career", including convincing him to change his name from Mladen Sekulovich. He played a drunken sailor in Kazan's "Truckline Cafe," which also included a young Marlon Brando. In 1947, he co-starred in the stage play "All My Sons," written by Arthur Miller, with Kazan directing, and began being recognized as a serious actor.
However, his first major stage success was his role as an awkward suitor of Jessica Tandy in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which also helped make Brando a star on stage. After two years in the role, he played the same part in the 1951 film version, this time playing opposite Vivien Leigh, where he won his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Kazan next directed him in On the Waterfront (1954), where he was also nominated as Best Supporting Actor for his role as a sympathetic priest. In 1956, Kazan directed him in a starring role in Baby Doll, alongside Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach, a controversial story written by Tennessee Williams, and he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor.
Malden remained friends with Kazan despite his unpopular appearance at the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Many mutual "friends who turned on Kazan also refused to speak to Malden." He furthered his support in 1999, when, as a member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he proposed that they give Kazan an honorary Oscar for "lifetime achievement". Malden's proposal was bold, as film festivals, critics associations, and the American Film Institute, had already refused to bestow similar honors because of Kazan's testimony given nearly 50 years earlier. Malden recalled giving his proposal:
According to the Los Angeles Times, when Malden finished speaking, "he was greeted by a rousing burst of applause."
On the Waterfront was also the screen debut for Eva Marie Saint, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role. Saint recalls that Kazan selected her for the role after he had her do an improvisational skit with Brando playing the other character. She had no idea that he was looking to fill any particular film part, however, but remembers that Kazan set up the scenario with Brando which brought out surprising emotions:
Life magazine described On the Waterfront as the "most brutal movie of the year" but with "the year's tenderest love scenes," and stating that Saint was a "new discovery" in films. In its cover story about Saint, it speculated that it will probably be as Edie in On the Waterfront that she "starts her real trip to fame."
The film made use of extensive on-location street scenes and waterfront shots, and included a notable score by composer Leonard Bernstein.
After the success of On the Waterfront he went on to direct the screen adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel, East of Eden in 1955. As director, Kazan again used another unknown actor, James Dean. Kazan had seen Dean on stage in New York and after an audition gave him the starring role along with an exclusive contract with Warner Bros. Dean flew back to Los Angeles with Kazan in 1954, the first time he had ever flown in a plane, bringing his clothes in a brown paper bag.:194 The film's success introduced James Dean to the world and established him as a popular actor. He went on to star in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), directed by Kazan's friend, Nicholas Ray, and then Giant, (dir. George Stevens, 1956)
Author Douglas Rathgeb describes the difficulties Kazan had in turning Dean into a new star, noting how Dean was a controversial figure at Warner Bros. from the time he arrived. There were rumors that he "kept a loaded gun in his studio trailer; that he drove his motorcycle dangerously down studio streets or sound stages; that he had bizarre and unsavory friends." As a result, Kazan was forced to "baby-sit the young actor in side-by-side trailers," so he wouldn't run away during production. Co-star Julie Harris worked overtime to quell Dean's panic attacks. In general, Dean was oblivious to Hollywood's methods, and Rathgeb notes that "his radical style did not mesh with Hollywood's corporate gears."
Dean himself was amazed at his own performance on screen when he later viewed a rough cut of the film. Kazan had invited director Nicholas Ray to a private showing, with Dean, as Ray was looking for someone to play the lead in Rebel Without a Cause. Ray watched Dean's powerful acting on the screen; but it didn't seem possible that it was the same person in the room. Ray felt Dean was shy and totally withdrawn as he sat there hunched over. "Dean himself did not seem to believe it," notes Rathgeb. "He watched himself with an odd, almost adolescent fascination, as if he were admiring someone else."
The film also made good use of on-location and outdoor scenes, along with an effective use of early widescreen format, making the film one of Kazan's most accomplished works. James Dean died the following year, at the age of 24, in an accident with his sports car outside of Los Angeles. He had only made three films, and the only completed film he ever saw was East of Eden.
In 1961, he introduced Warren Beatty in his first screen appearance with a starring role in Splendor in the Grass (1961), with Natalie Wood; the film was nominated for two Oscars and won one. Author Peter Biskind points out that Kazan "was the first in a string of major directors Beatty sought out, mentors or father figures from whom he wanted to learn." Biskind notes also that they "were wildly dissimilar—mentor vs. protege, director vs. actor, immigrant outsider vs. native son. Kazan was armed with the confidence born of age and success, while Beatty was virtually aflame with the arrogance of youth." Kazan recalls his impressions of Beatty:
Biskind describes an episode during the first week of shooting, where Beatty was angered at something Kazan said: "The star lashed out at the spot where he knew Kazan was most vulnerable, the director's friendly testimony before the HUAC. He snapped, 'Lemme ask you something—why did you name all those names?'"
Beatty himself recalled the episode: "In some patricidal attempt to stand up to the great Kazan, I arrogantly and stupidly challenged him on it." Biskind describes how "Kazan grabbed his arm, asking, 'What did you say?' and dragged him off to a tiny dressing room ... whereupon the director proceeded to justify himself for two hours." Beatty, years later, during a Kennedy Center tribute to Kazan, stated to the audience that Kazan "had given him the most important break in his career.":23
Beatty's costar, Natalie Wood, was in a transition period in her career, having mostly been cast in roles as a child or teenager, and she was now hoping to be cast in adult roles. Biographer Suzanne Finstad notes that a "turning point" in her life as an actress was upon seeing the film A Streetcar Named Desire: "She was transformed, in awe of Kazan and of Vivien Leigh's performance... [who] became a role model for Natalie.":107 In 1961, after a "series of bad films, her career was already in decline," notes Rathgeb.:199 Kazan himself writes that the "sages" of the film community declared her as "washed up" as an actress, although he still wanted to interview her for his next film:
Kazan cast her as the female lead in Splendor in the Grass, and her career rebounded. Finstad feels that despite Wood never receiving training in Method acting techniques, "working with Kazan brought her to the greatest emotional heights of her career. The experience was exhilarating but wrenching for Natalie, who faced her demons on Splendor.":259 She adds that a scene in the film, as a result of "Kazan's wizardry ... produced a hysteria in Natalie that may be her most powerful moment as an actress.":260
Actor Gary Lockwood, who also acted in the film, felt that "Kazan and Natalie were a terrific marriage, because you had this beautiful girl, and you had somebody that could get things out of her." Kazan's favorite scene in the movie was the last one, when Wood goes back to see her lost first love, Bud (Beatty). "It's terribly touching to me. I still like it when I see it," writes Kazan.:263 "And I certainly didn't need to tell her how to play it. She understood it perfectly."
Another aspect that contributed to the power and intensity of his films was his close collaboration with writers. On Broadway, he worked with Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and William Inge; in film, he worked again with Willams (A Streetcar Named Desire and Baby Doll), Inge (Splendor in the Grass), Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd), John Steinbeck (Viva Zapata!), and Harold Pinter (The Last Tycoon). As an instrumental figure in the careers of many of the best writers of his time, "he always treated them and their work with the utmost respect." In 2009, a previously unproduced screenplay by Williams, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, was released as a film. Williams wrote the screenplay specifically for Kazan to direct during the 1950s.
Williams became one of Kazan's closest and most loyal friends, and Kazan often pulled Williams out of "creative slumps" by redirecting his focus with new ideas. In 1959, in a letter to Kazan, he writes, “Some day you will know how much I value the great things you did with my work, how you lifted it above its measure by your great gift.”
Among Kazan's other films were Panic in the Streets (1950), East of Eden (1955), Baby Doll (1956), Wild River (1960), and The Last Tycoon (1976).
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In between his directing work he wrote four best-selling novels, including America, America, and The Arrangement, in both of which he tells the story of his Greek immigrant ancestors. They were later made into films.
Kazan strove for "cinematic realism," a quality he often achieved by discovering and working with unknown actors, many of whom treated him as their mentor, which gave him the flexibility to depict "social reality with both accuracy and vivid intensity." He also felt that casting the right actors accounted for 90% of a movie's ultimate success or failure. As a result of his efforts, he also gave actors such as Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet, Warren Beatty, Andy Griffith, James Dean, and Jack Palance, their first major movie roles. He explained to director and producer George Stevens, Jr. that he felt that "big stars are barely trained or not very well trained. They also have bad habits... they're not pliable anymore." Kazan also describes how and why he gets to know his actors on a personal level:
Kazan goes on to describe how he got to understand James Dean, as an example:
Kazan chooses his subjects to express personal and social events that he is familiar with. He describes his thought process before taking on a project:
Film historian Joanna E. Rapf notes that among the methods Kazan used in his work with actors, was his initial focus on "reality", although his style was not defined as "naturalistic." She adds: "He respects his script, but casts and directs with a particular eye for expressive action and the use of emblematic objects.":33 Kazan himself states that "unless the character is somewhere in the actor himself, you shouldn't cast him.":33
In his later years he changed his mind about some of the philosophy behind the Group Theater, in that he no longer felt that the theater was a "collective art," as he once believed:
Nonetheless, there have been clear messages in some of his films that involved politics in various ways. In 1954, he directed On the Waterfront, written by screenwriter Budd Schulberg, which was a film about union corruption in New York. Some critics consider it "one of the greatest films in the history of international cinema." Another political film was A Face in the Crowd (1957). His protagonist, played by Andy Griffith (in his film debut,) is not a politician, yet his career suddenly becomes deeply involved in politics. According to film author Harry Keyishian, Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg were using the film to warn audiences about the dangerous potential of the new medium of television. Kazan explains that he and Schulberg were trying to warn "of the power TV would have in the political life of the nation." Kazan states, "Listen to what the candidate says; don't be taken in by his charm or his trust-inspiring personality. Don't buy the advertisement; buy what's in the package."
As a product of the Group Theater and Actors Studio, he was most noted for his use of "Method" actors, especially Brando and Dean. During an interview in 1988, Kazan said, "I did whatever was necessary to get a good performance including so-called Method acting. I made them run around the set, I scolded them, I inspired jealousy in their girlfriends... The director is a desperate beast! ... You don't deal with actors as dolls. You deal with them as people who are poets to a certain degree." Actor Robert De Niro called him a "master of a new kind of psychological and behavioral faith in acting."
Kazan was aware of the limited range of his directing abilities:
He explained that he tried to inspire his actors to offer ideas:
Kazan, however, held strong ideas about the scenes, and would try to merge an actor's suggestions and inner feelings with his own. Despite the strong eroticism created in Baby Doll, for example, he set limits. Before shooting a seduction scene between Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker, he privately asked Wallach, "Do you think you actually go through with seducing that girl?" Wallach writes, "I hadn't thought about that question before, but I answered ... 'No.'" Kazan replies, "Good idea, play it that way." Kazan, many years later, explained his rationale for scenes in that film:
Joanna Rapf adds that Kazan was most admired for his close work with actors, noting that director Nicholas Ray considered him "the best actor's director the United States has ever produced.":22 Film historian Foster Hirsch explains that "he created virtually a new acting style, which was the style of the Method... [that] allowed for the actors to create great depth of psychological realism."
Among the actors who describe Kazan as an important influence in their career were Patricia Neal, who co-starred with Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd (1957): "He was very good. He was an actor and he knew how we acted. He would come and talk to you privately. I liked him a lot." Anthony Franciosa, a supporting actor in the film, explains how Kazan encouraged his actors:
However, in order to get quality acting from Andy Griffith, in his first screen appearance, and achieve what Schickel calls "an astonishing movie debut,":338 Kazan would often take surprising measures. In one important and highly emotional scene, for example, Kazan had to give Griffith fair warning: "I may have to use extraordinary means to make you do this. I may have to get out of line. I don't know any other way of getting an extraordinary performance out of an actor."
Actress Terry Moore calls Kazan her "best friend," and notes that "he made you feel better than you thought you could be. I never had another director that ever touched him. I was spoiled for life." "He would find out if your life was like the character," says Carroll Baker, star of Baby Doll, "he was the best director with actors."
Kazan's need to remain close to his actors continued up to his last film, The Last Tycoon (1976). He remembers that Robert De Niro, the star of the film, "would do almost anything to succeed," and even cut his weight down from 170 to 128 pounds for the role. Kazan adds that De Niro "is one of a select number of actors I've directed who work hard at their trade, and the only one who asked to rehearse on Sundays. Most of the others play tennis. Bobby and I would go over the scenes to be shot.":766
The powerful dramatic roles Kazan brought out from many of his actors was due, partly, to his ability to recognize their personal character traits. Although he didn't know De Niro before this film, for example, Kazan later writes, "Bobby is more meticulous ... he's very imaginative. He's very precise. He figures everything out both inside and outside. He has good emotion. He's a character actor: everything he does he calculates. In a good way, but he calculates.":210 Kazan developed and used those personality traits for his character in the film.:766 Although the film did poorly at the box office, some reviewers praised De Niro's acting. Film critic Marie Brenner writes that "for De Niro, it is a role that surpasses even his brilliant and daring portrayal of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, part II, ... [his] performance deserves to be compared with the very finest."
Marlon Brando, in his autobiography, goes into detail about the influence Kazan had on his acting:
Until his death, Kazan remained controversial in some circles for testimony he gave before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952, a period that many, such as journalist Michael Mills, feel was "the most controversial period in Hollywood history." When he was in his mid 20s, during the Depression years 1934 to 1936, he had been a member of the American Communist Party in New York, for a year and a half.
In April 1952, the Committee called on Kazan, under oath, to identify Communists from that period 16 years earlier. Kazan initially refused to provide names, but eventually named eight former Group Theater members who he said had been Communists: Clifford Odets, J. Edward Bromberg, Lewis Leverett, Morris Carnovsky, Phoebe Brand, Tony Kraber, Ted Wellman, and Paula Miller, who later married Lee Strasberg. He testified that Odets quit the party at the same time that he did. All the persons named were already known to HUAC, however. The move cost Kazan many friends within the film industry, including playwright Arthur Miller.
Kazan would later write in his autobiography of the "warrior pleasure at withstanding his 'enemies.' When Kazan received an Honorary Academy Award in 1999, the audience was noticeably divided in their reaction, with some including Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, Ian McKellen and Amy Madigan refusing to applaud, and many others, such as actors Kathy Bates, Meryl Streep and Warren Beatty and producer George Stevens, Jr. standing and applauding. Stevens speculates on why he, Beatty, and many others in the audience chose to stand and applaud:
Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, agreed, writing "The only criterion for an award like this is the work". Kazan was already "denied accolades" from the American Film Institute, and other film critics associations. According to Mills, "It’s time for the Academy to recognize this genius," adding that "We applauded when the great Chaplin finally had his hour."
In later interviews, Kazan explained some of the early events that made him decide to become a friendly witness, most notably in relation to the Group Theater, which he called his first "family," and the "best thing professionally" that ever happened to him:
Mills notes that prior to becoming a "friendly witness," Kazan discussed the issues with Miller:
Miller put his arm around Kazan and retorted, "don’t worry about what I’ll think. Whatever you do is okay with me, because I know that your heart is in the right place."
In his memoirs, Kazan writes that his testimony meant that "the big shot had become the outsider." He also notes that it strengthened his friendship with another outsider, Tennessee Williams, with whom he collaborated on numerous plays and films. He called Williams "the most loyal and understanding friend I had through those black months.":495
Elia Kazan was married three times. His first wife was playwright Molly Day Thacher. They were married from 1932 until her death in 1963; this marriage produced two daughters and two sons, including screenwriter Nicholas Kazan. His second marriage, to the actress Barbara Loden, lasted from 1969 until her death in 1980, and produced one son. His marriage, in 1982, to Frances Rudge continued until his death, in 2003, aged 94.
In 1978, the U.S. government paid for Kazan and his family to travel to Kazan's birthplace where many of his films were to be shown. During a speech in Athens, he discussed his films and his personal and business life in the U.S., along with the messages he tried to convey:
In my own view, the solution is to talk about human beings and not about abstracts, to reveal the culture and the social moment as it is reflected in the behavior and the lives of individual people. Not to be "correct." To be total. So I do not believe in any ideology that does not permit—no encourage—the freedom of the individual.
He also offered his opinions about the role of the U.S. as a world model for democracy:
I think you and I, all of us, have some sort of stake in the United States. If it fails, the failure will be that of us all. Of mankind itself. It will cost us all. . . . I think of the United States as a country which is an arena and in that arena there is a drama being played out. . . . . I have seen that the struggle is the struggle of free men.
Elia Kazan died from natural causes in his Manhattan apartment, 28 September 2003 aged 94.
Kazan became known as an "actor's director" because he was able to elicit some of the best performances in the careers of many of his stars, such as Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, James Dean, Julie Harris, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach and Natalie Wood. Under his direction, his actors received 21 Academy Award nominations and won nine Oscars. He won as Best Director for Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and for On the Waterfront (1954), which is considered "one of the greatest films in the history of international cinema." Both A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront were nominated for twelve Academy Awards, respectively winning four and eight.
Kazan never lost his identification with the oppressed people he remembered from the depths of the Great Depression. With his many years with the Group Theater and Actors Studio in New York City and later triumphs on Broadway, he became famous "for the power and intensity of his actors' performances." He was the pivotal figure in launching the film careers of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Julie Harris, Eva Marie Saint, Warren Beatty, Lee Remick, Karl Malden, and many others. Seven of Kazan's films won a total of 20 Academy Awards. Dustin Hoffman commented that he "doubted whether he, Robert De Niro, or Al Pacino, would have become actors without Mr. Kazan's influence."
Upon his death, at the age of 94, the New York Times described him as "one of the most honored and influential directors in Broadway and Hollywood history." His stage direction of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire is considered a "high point of world theater" in the 20th century. Although he became a "legendary director on Broadway", he made an equally impressive transition into one of the major filmmakers of his time. Critic William Baer notes that throughout his career "he constantly rose to the challenge of his own aspirations", adding that "he was a pioneer and visionary who greatly affected the history of both stage and cinema". Certain of his film-related material and personal papers are contained in the Wesleyan University Cinema Archives to which scholars and media experts from around the world may have full access.
His controversial stand during his testimony in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952, became the low point in his career, although he remained convinced that he made the right decision to give the names of Communist Party members. He stated in an interview in 1976:
During his career, Kazan won both Tony and Oscar Awards for excellence on stage and screen. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan presented him with the Kennedy Center honors award, a national tribute for life achievement in the arts. At the ceremony, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who wrote On the Waterfront, thanks his lifelong friend saying, “Elia Kazan has touched us all with his capacity to honor not only the heroic man, but the hero in every man.” In an interview with the American Film Institute in 1976, Kazan spoke of his love of the cinema: "I think it's the most wonderful art in the world."
In 1999, when he was 90 years old, Kazan received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. During the ceremony, he was accompanied by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. The propriety of such an honor for Kazan who "named names" at the HUAC hearings remains a "contentious subject" according to the New York Times. Many in Hollywood felt that enough time had passed that it was appropriate to finally recognize Kazan's great artistic accomplishments, although others did not and would not applaud. Kazan appreciated the award:
In his autobiography, A Life, he sums up the influence of filmmaking on his life:
Martin Scorsese has directed a film documentary, A Letter to Elia (2010), considered to be an "intensely personal and deeply moving tribute" to Kazan. Scorsese was "captivated" by Kazan's films as a young man, and the documentary mirrors his own life story while he also credits Kazan as the inspiration for his becoming a filmmaker.
|Year||Film||Oscar nominations||Oscar wins||Videos||Audios|
|1937||People of the Cumberland (as assistant director only)|
|1940||City for Conquest (as actor only)||scenes|
|1941||Blues in the Night (as actor only)||trailer|
|1945||A Tree Grows in Brooklyn||2||1||scenes|
|Watchtower Over Tomorrow|
|1947||The Sea of Grass|
|1950||Panic in the Streets||1||1||scenes|
|1951||A Streetcar Named Desire||12||4||trailer|
|1953||Man on a Tightrope||scene|
|1954||On the Waterfront||12||8||trailer|
|1955||East of Eden||4||1||trailer|
|1957||A Face in the Crowd||trailer|
|1961||Splendor in the Grass||2||1||trailer|
|1976||The Last Tycoon||1||scene|
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