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ELIA KAZAN dies at 94

 

American stage and film director, whose best-known works include GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (1948, Oscar) and ON THE WATERFRONT (1954). Many of Kazan's films have social or political theme. From 1945 to 1961 Kazan was one of the giants of American cinema, who survived even his colleagues condemnation when he offered names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. There were more directors, screenwriters, actors and others who couldn't continue their career in film business when they made the opposite decision.

'Since talent is so often the scar tissue over a wound, perhaps I had more than most men. Study those you admire for what they've accomplished, and you may be able to identify the painful and costly events that made them despair for a time but that, in the end, they had to thank for the fortitude of spirit that made it possible for them to achieve what they did.' (from A Life, 1988)

Elia Kazan was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul) of Greek parentage. In 1913, at the age of four, his family emigrated to the US and settled in New York City, where his father became a rug merchant.

After graduating from Williams College, Kazan studied drama at Yale. In the 1930s Kazan acted with New York's Group Theater and co-founded in 1947 the Actor's Studio. 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 Tennessee Williams, such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Arthur Miller, such as Death of a Salesman (1948). Among other stage successes were The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), All My Sons (1947), and Tea and Sympathy (1953).

As a movie director Kazan started his career with documentary films and made his first feature film, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN in 1945, a dramatization of Betty Smith's novel about a Brooklyn family in the earlier years of the 20th century. The film won the veteran actor James Dunn an Oscar and secured Kazan's place with Fox for the next nine years. In 1947 Kazan won Academy Award as the best director for Gentleman's Agreement. In the film Gregory Peck played a high-principled reporter writing a story of Anti-Semitism. Racial theme's continued in PINKY (1949), about a black girl and her identity crisis - she is so light-skinned that she could pass for a white.

Kazan's co-operation with Marlon Brando, the most famous student of the Actors Studio, started in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which was adapted into screen in 1951. The relationship between the warm and practical Stella (Kim Hunter) and Brando as the self-possed Stanley is directed dramatically and truthfully. Vivien Leigh as Blanche du Bois repeated her theatrical interpretation and Karl Malden was good as the hoped-for suitor. Leigh won an Academy Award for Best Actress and Karl Malden for Supporting Actor. Manny Farber in the Nation (October 20, 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 Schulbergs account of N.Y.C. harbour unions. 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 a part of film history. Lee J. Cobb played the corrupt Union boss, Eva Marie Saint was Malloy's girl friend and Karl Malden was the local priest. The theme of conflicting loyalties had parallels to Kazan's own life, when he had given a testimony in 1952 to the House Un-American Activities and admitted past membership in the Communist party and named others from his group.

"No one who did what I did, whatever his reasons, came out of it undamaged. I did not. Here I am, thirty-five 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..." (from A Life)

Kazan's next film, EAST OF EDEN (1955), was based on John Steinbeck's novel and the central role was played by James Dean. Kazan disliked Dean, and he was too cute for Steinbeck's pretensions. 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. In WILD RIVER (1960) Kazan dealt with Tennessee Authority Valley's plans to flood the country side and build dams at the end of the Depression. Montgomery Cliff was a T.V.A. 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 SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961) Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty played young loves in Kansas in the Twenties, just before the Depression. "Kazan may have spent two years trying, but he has not gotten it right. 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." (Arthur B. Clark in Films in Review, November 1961)

On stage Kazan continued his interpretations of Tennessee Williams's and Arthur Miller's plays and worked also with such playwrights as Robert Anderson, William Inge. Kazan's films AMERICA AMERICA (1963), following the adventures of a young Anatolian Greek immigrant (Stathis Giallelis), and THE ARRANGEMENT (1969), starring Kirk Douglas, were based on his own novel.

"I enjoyed doing the picture. 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." (from The Ragman's Son by Kirk Douglas, 1988)

In the 1970s Kazan made THE VISITORS (1972), about two Vietnam vets, who invade the house of third vet. THE LAST TYCOON (1976), his last film, set in Hollywood in the 1930s. It was based on F. Scott Fitzgeralds novel, adapted by Harold Pinter. Robert de Niro was a movie producer, whose character was based on the famous Irving Thalberg. Both films reveived mixed critics - The Visitors was considred a total failure, and The Last Tycoon "so enervated it's like a vampire movie after the vampires have left." (New Yorker). Kazan devoted more of his time to writing, publishing novels THE UNDERSTUDY (1974), ACT OF LOVE (1978). In the 1980s appeared 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 Center ceremony. When he received in 1999 the Honorary Oscar, Warren Beatty rose and applauded and Nick Nolte remained seated stony-faced. Kazan's films have earned 22 Academy Awards and 62 nominations, including 2 Directing Oscars. He has been married three times (Moly Day Thatcher, died in 1963, Barbara Loden, died in 1980 and Frances Rudge from 1982).

"Kazan is the best actor's director you could ever want because he was an actor himself, but a special kind of actor. He understands things that other directors do not. He also inspired you. Most actors are expected to come with their parts in their pockets and their emotions spring-loaded, when the director says, "Okay, hit it," they go into a time-slip. But 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." (from Conversations with Marlon Brando by Lawrence Grobel, 1991)

For further reading: Elia Kazan: Interviews, ed. by William Baer (2000); Kazan - The Master Director Discusses His Films, ed. by Jeff Young (1999); Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan by Brenda Murphy (1992); A Life by Elia Kazan (1998); Elia Kazan: A Guide to References and Resources by Lloyd Michaels (1985)

FICTION AND NON-FICTION:

  • AMERICA AMERICA, 1962
  • THE ARRANGEMENT, 1967 - Sopimus elämän kanssa
  • THE ASSASSINS, 1972 - Pelon maa
  • THE UNDERSTUDY, 1974
  • ACTS OF LOVE, 1978 - Rakkauden kaikki teot
  • THE ANATOLIAN, 1983
  • A LIFE, 1988
  • AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY, 1989

FILMS:

  • THE PEOPLE OF THE CUMBERLANDS, 1937 (also prod., screenplay)
  • IT'S UP TO YOU, 1941
  • A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, 1945 - based on Brry Smith's novel
  • THE SEA OF GRASS, 1947 - based on Conrad Richter's novel, starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn
  • BOOMERANG, 1947
  • GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT, 1947 - based on Laura Z. Hobson's novel, screenplay Moss Hart, starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, Anne Revere
  • PINKY, 1949 - based on Cid Ricketts Summer's novel Quality, screenplay by Philip Dunne and Dudley Nichols, starring Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, Ethel Waters, William Lundigan
  • PANIC IN THE STREETS, 1950 - starring Jack Palance and Richard Widmark
  • A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, 1951 - Viettelyksen vaunu - written by Tennessee Williams from his play, starring Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden
  • VIVA ZAPATA!, 1952 - written by John Steinbeck, starring Marlon Brando, Joseph Wiseman, Jean Peters, Anthony Quinn
  • MAN ON A TIGHTROPE, 1953 - screenplay by Robert Sherwood, starring Fredrick March, Cameron Mitchell, Adolphe Menjou
  • ON THE WATERFRONT, 1954 - Alaston satama - written by Budd Schulberg from his novel, starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden
  • EAST OF EDEN, 1955 (also prod.) - Eedenistä itään - screenpay by Paul Osborn from John Steinbeck's novel, starring Raymond Massey, James Dean, Julia Harris, Jo Van Fleet
  • BABY DOLL, 1956 (also prod.) - based on Tennessee William's short plays, starring Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, Carroll Baker
  • A FACE IN THE CROWD, 1957 (also prod.) - written by Budd Schulber, from his story Your Arkansas Traveller, starring Andy Griffith, Lee Remick, Walter Matthau, Patricia Neal
  • WILD RIVER, 1960 (also prod.) - screenplay by Paul Osborn, novels Borden Deal, William Bradford Huie, starring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet
  • SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, 1961 (also prod.) - screenplay by William Inge, starring Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty
  • AMERICA AMERICA, 1963 (also prod. screenplay from own novel) - starring Stathis Giallelis, Frank Wolff, Elena Karam, Harry Davis
  • THE ARRANGEMENT, 1969 (also prod. screenplay from own novel) - starring Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, Deborah Kerr, Richard Boone
  • THE VISITORS, 1972, starring James Woods, Patrick McVey, Patricia Joyce
  • THE LAST TYCOON, 1976 - screenplay by Harold Pinter, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, starring Robert de Niro, Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Jeanne Moreau, Jack Nicholson

 

 

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