Elia Kazan

Elia Kazan was a progressive pioneer of modern American cinema who fell from grace and never fully recovered after he gave names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the darkest days of the Cold War. DEAN KALIMNIOU reflects on the director of On the Waterfront, Streetcar named Desire and Gentleman’s Agreement following Kazan’s birthday September 7.

There is a scene in the film Amerika Amerika where some terrified Armenians crowd into a church. As the flames, lit by pursuing Turks rise ever higher around them, they recite the Lord’s prayer in unison.

When he received the Honorary Oscar in 1999, Warren Beatty rose and applauded and Nick Nolte remained seated stony-faced, proving his enduring controversiality.

It is a most profound and unnerving scene. It was through it that I first learned of the existence of American stage and film director, Elia Kazan.Some of Kazan’s best-known works include the Oscar winning films Gentleman’s Agreement (1948) and On the Waterfront (1954).

Many of Elia Kazan’s works are rich with social or political themes and between 1945 to 1961 Kazan was a giant of American cinema.

Yet, he lost many friends, and respect, when he offered names to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the rabid Communist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Elia Kazantzioglou was born variously in Constatinople or Caesaria. In 1913, at the age of four, his family emigrated to the US and settled in New York City, where his father, George Kazanjoglous, became a rug merchant.

Kazan’s father expected that his son would go into the family business, but his mother, Athena, encouraged Kazan to make his own decisions.

Kazan attended public schools in New York City and New Rochelle. After graduating from Williams College, Massachusetts, Kazan studied drama at Yale. In the 1930s Kazan acted with New York’s Group Theater.

During this period Kazan earned his nickname Gadg, short for Gadget; he never learned to love the name.

For about 19 months in 1934-36, Kazan was a member of a secret Communist cell, something that would earn him notoriety later.

When he appeared before the Congressional House of Un-American Activities Committee on April 12, 1952, Elia Kazan explained how the American Communist Party had attempted to take over the Group Theatre in the 1930s: “I was instructed by the Communist unit to demand that the group be run ‘democratically.’ This was a characteristic Communist tactic; they were not interested in democracy; they wanted control. They had no chance of controlling the directors, but they thought that if authority went to the actors, they would have a chance to dominate through …behind-the-scenes caucuses, block voting and confusion of issues. This was the specific issue on which I quit the Party. I had enough …of being told what to think and say and do, enough of their habitual violation of the daily practices of democracy to which I was accustomed. The last straw came when I was invited to go through a typical Communist scene of crawling and apologizing and admitting the error of my ways. I had had a taste of police-state living and I did not like it.“

In 1947 Kazan founded the Actor’s Studio with Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis. He directed his first stage play in 1935 and in the 1940s he gained fame as one of Broadway’s finest talents.

Kazan was especially acclaimed for his powerful and realistic direction of the plays of Tennesee Williams such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1948).

Among other stage successes were The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), based on Thornton Wilder’s history of human race, All My Sons (1947), and Tea and Sympathy (1953). The Skin of Our Teeth, earned Kazan his first New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.

After Streetcar, Kazan participated very actively in the construction of Williams’s texts for the stage.

He sent long letters to Williams, who often made substantial changes in his plays.

Indeed, in 1955 Williams said that he felt Kazan has usurped his authority as writer with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Critics commented that Kazan brought commercial values into the artist’s domain.

As a film director Kazan made his first feature in 1945, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a dramatisation of Betty Smith’s novel about a Brooklyn family in the early years of the 20th century. It won the veteran actor James Dunn an Oscar and secured Kazan’s place with Fox for the next nine years.

In 1947 Kazan won the Academy Award as the best director for Gentleman’s Agreement. Gregory Peck played a high-principled reporter writing a story of Anti-Semitism.

Kazan’s reactions to racism continued in Pinky (1949), about an African American girl whose light-skin allows her to pass for white.

Kazan’s co-operation with Marlon Brando, the most famous student from the method based Actors Studio, started in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, later adapted for screen.

The relationship between the warm and practical Stella (Kim Hunter) and Brando as the self-possessed Stanley is directed dramatically and truthfully.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche du Bois repeated her theatrical interpretation and Karl Malden was a great study of pathos as the hoped-for suitor.

“Kazan is the best actor’s director you could ever want,” Brando said later, “because he was an actor himself, but a special kind of actor. …Kazan brought a lot of things to the actor and he invited you to argue with him. He’s one of the few directors creative and understanding enough to know where the actor’s trying to go. He’d let you play a scene almost any way you’d want.”

Leigh won an Academy Award for Best Actress and Karl Malden for Supporting Actor.

Manny Farber in the Nation (1951) did not like the film: “Everything that kept the Broadway Streetcar, from spinning off into ridiculous melodrama – everything thoughtful, muted, three-dimensional – has been raped, along with poor Blanche Dubois, in the Hollywood version… Brando, having fallen hard for the critics’ idea that Stanley is simply animal and slob, now screams and postures and sweeps plates off the table with an apelike emphasis that unfortunately becomes predictable.”

Brando had central roles in Viva Zapata! (1952) and On the Waterfront (1954), which won eight Oscars.

The film was based on Budd Schulberg’s account of corruption in New York City’s harbour unions.

Schulberg himself had also testified as a friendly witness before the Congressional committee in the 1950s, during the height of the McCarthy’s anticommunist purges of America’s theatre, literary and cinema words.

The scene in a taxicab, where Brando, playing Terry Malloy, ex-pug and longshoreman, tells his brother (Rod Steiger) that he “coulda been a contender, instead of a bum,” is embedded in our film history.

The theme of conflicting loyalties had parallels to Kazan’s own life. In his testimony in 1952 to the House Un-American Activities he admitted past membership in the Communist party.

At the first questioning session, he refused to name names. People in power in the picture business told him his career was in jeopardy. He went back and named names.

“Concerned friends”, he would write, “have asked me why I didn’t take the ‘decent’ alternative, tell everything about myself and not name the others in the Group. But in the end that was not what I wanted. Perhaps ex-communists are particularly unrelenting against the party. I believed that this committee, which everyone scorned – I had plenty against them too – had a proper duty. I wanted to break open the secrecy.”

“No one who did what I did, whatever his reasons, came out of it undamaged,” Kazan wrote in his autobiography Elia Kazan: A Life. “I did not. Here I am, 35 years later, still worrying over it. I knew what it would cost me. Do I now feel ashamed of what I did? …The truth is that within a year I’d stopped feeling guilty or even embarrassed about what I’d done…”

Kazan’s next film, East of Eden (1955), was based on the novel by John Steinbeck. The central role was played by James Dean.

Kazan disliked Dean and he was too cute for Steinbeck’s grand narrative.

Baby Doll (1956) was constructed from two of Tennessee Williams’s short plays and dealt with sex in the decadent Deep South.

A Face in the Crowd (1957) was based on Budd Schulberg’s short story about a popular television personality (Andy Griffith) who develops high political ambitions and starts to climb to power.

Wild River (1960) was set at the end of the Great Depression. Kazan dealt with Tennessee Authority Valley’s plans to flood the country side and build dams.

Montgomery Cliff played a TVA agent who falls in love with Lee Remick.

During the shooting Clift stayed sober most of the time and got close to Remick. “I wanted their scenes to show ambivalence, attraction, repulsion, fear, love,” said Kazan later. “I’d literally stop the action time and time again and just zero in on the intensity of their feeling.”

In Splendour in the Grass (1961), Kazan’s last hit movie, Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty played young loves in Kansas in the Twenties, just before the Depression.

“Kazan may have spent two years trying,” wrote Arthur B. Clark in Films in Review (1961), “Once again the hatred of American life he puts into his films results in caricatures. In fact, some of the scenes in Splendor in the Grass are so repulsive they seem deliberately calculated to denigrate the US in foreign eyes.”

On stage Kazan continued his interpretations of Tennessee Williams’s and Arthur Miller’s plays.

Kazan was Marilyn Monroe’s lover before Arthur Miller married her, but she did not play in his films. However, Kazan’s second wife, the actress Barbara Loden, played Marilyn Monroe in After the Fall, written by Arthur Miller.

Kazan’s films Amerika Amerika (1963), following the adventures of a young Anatolian Greek immigrant (Stathis Giallelis), and The Arrangement (1969), starring Kirk Douglas, were based on his own novels.

“I enjoyed doing the picture,” Douglas recalled in his memoir, The Ragman’s Son (1988). “Kazan was trying to do something different, bold, go inside the head of my character in all his confusion over his career, his women, his father, his life. Screening of the picture drew mixed reactions. In the editing, Kazan changed the ending. I felt that he hadn’t made the movie that was based on his book, the movie that he had shot.”

In the 1970s Kazan made two films. The first was The Visitors (1972), about two Vietnam veterans, who invade the house of a third veteran. The second was The Last Tycoon (1976), his last film, set in Hollywood in the 1930s. It was based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, adapted by Harold Pinter.

Both films received mixed critics The Visitors was considered a failure, and The Last Tycoon “so enervated it’s like a vampire movie after the vampires have left.” (New Yorker)

From the 1970s Kazan devoted more of his time to writing, publishing the novels The Understudy (1974) and Act of Love (1978).

In the 1980s he published The Anatolian (1982), An American Odyssey (1989), and Kazan’s autobiography Elia Kazan: A Life (1988). In 1983 Kazan was honoured for his Life Achievement in a Kennedy Centre ceremony.

When he received the Honorary Oscar in 1999, Warren Beatty rose and applauded and Nick Nolte remained seated stony-faced, proving his enduring controversiality.

Kazan’s films have earned 22 Academy Awards and 62 nominations, including two Directing Oscars. He was married three times; all his wives being blondes. “Being Greek, blondness is my fetish,” Kazan wrote in The Arrangement.

In 1932 he married Moly Day Thatcher, a playwright; they had four children. She died in 1963. Barbara Loden, an actress, writer and director, whom he married in 1967, died in 1980. From 1982 Kazan was married to Frances Rudge.

Elia Kazan died on September 28, 2003, at his home in Manhattan.

Guardian journalist David Thompson best sums up the difficulty of approaching the life of this remarkable auteur, “There is no way his crammed career and conflicting impulses can be reduced to a short obituary. To list all his credits would take up the space, and leave no room for a proper account of his truly ugly face, made magnetic by the way his reproachful eyes watched you. He was edgy, belligerent, seductive, rhapsodic, brutal, a soaring humanist one moment and a piratical womaniser the next. Until old age and illness overcame him, he was ferociously and competitively alive. To be with him was to know that, in addition to everything else he had done, he could have been a hypnotic actor or an inspiring political leader.”