Elia Kazan (born Elias Kazantzoglou (Greek: Ηλίας Καζαντζόγλου); 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 Istanbul, to Cappadocian Greek parents. After attending Williams College and then the Yale School of Drama, he acted professionally for eight years, later joining the Group Theatre in 1932, and co-founded the Actors Studio in 1947. With Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford, his actors’ studio introduced “Method Acting” under the direction of Lee Strasberg. Kazan acted in a few films, including City for Conquest (1940) with James Cagney.
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 eight Oscar nominations and three wins, including Kazan’s first for Best Director. It was followed by Pinky (1949), with Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, and Ethel Waters; one of the first films in mainstream Hollywood to address racial prejudice against African Americans. This was followed by Panic in the Streets (1950), with Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Jack Palance, and Zero Mostel.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), with Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden; an adaptation of the stage play which he had also directed, received twelve Oscar nominations, winning four, and was Brando’s breakthrough role. In 1954, he directed On the Waterfront, a film about union corruption on the New York harbor waterfront. It won 8 out of its 12 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor for Brando, and Best Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint. He also directed East of Eden (1955), with Julie Harris, James Dean, Raymond Massey, Burl Ives, Richard Davalos, and Jo Van Fleet. His other films during this period include Baby Doll (1956), with Carroll Baker, Malden, and Eli Wallach; and a Face in the Crowd (1957), with Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, and Lee Remick.
A turning point in Kazan’s career came with his testimony as a 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. His testimony helped end the careers of former acting colleagues Morris Carnovsky and Art Smith, along with the work of playwright Clifford Odets. The two men had made a pact to name each other in front of the committee. Kazan later justified his act by saying he took “only the more tolerable of two alternatives that were either way painful and wrong.” Nearly a half-century later, his anti-Communist testimony continued to cause controversy. When Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1999, dozens of actors chose not to applaud as 250 demonstrators picketed the event.
Kazan influenced the films of the 1950s and 1960s 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.” Film author Ian Freer concludes that even “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. Later films include Wild River (1960), with Montgomery Clift, Remick, Jo Van Fleet, Albert Salmi and Jay C. Flippen; Splendor in the Glass (1961), with Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty; The Arrangement (1969), with Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, Deborah Kerr, Richard Boone, Hume Cronyn; The Visitors (1972), with Patrick McVey, James Woods, and Steve Railsback; and The Last Tycoon (1976), with Robert De Niro, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Jack Nicholson, Donald Pleasence, Jeanne Moreau, Theresa Russell, and Ingrid Boulting.
Each review will be linked to the title below.
(*seen originally theaters)
(**seen originally in theaters)
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
- The Sea of Grass (1947)
- Boomerang! (1947)
- Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
- Pinky (1949)
- Panic in the Streets (1950)
- A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
- Viva Zapata! (1952)
- Man on a Tightrope (1953)
- On the Waterfront (1954)
- East of Eden (1955)
- Baby Doll (1956)
- A Face in the Crowd (1957)
- Wild River (1960)
- Splendor in the Grass (1961)
- America America (1963)
- The Arrangement (1969)
- The Visitors (1972)
- The Last Tycoon (1976)