Kazan, Elia

views updated Jun 08 2018

Kazan, Elia

(b. 7 September 1909 in Constantinople, Turkey; d. 28 September 2003 in New York City), screenwriter, award-winning director of films and plays, and best-selling novelist who won great acclaim for his work but also sparked controversy for his cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee in their investigation of Communist subversion in the entertainment industry.

Elia Kazan was born on 7 September 1909, one of four sons of Athena Sishmanoglou, a homemaker, and George Kazanjoglous, a rug merchant. As Anatolian Greeks, the Kazanjoglous family suffered under Turkish rule in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) and looked elsewhere for opportunity. An uncle, who became a model for the protagonist in Kazan’s first novel America America (1962), immigrated to the United States near the turn of the century and funded the trip for his relatives when Kazan was four years old. After shortening their name to Kazan, the family settled in a New York ghetto that left an indelible imprint on the way Kazan later talked, dressed, and carried himself. Kazan’s father fared well enough as a rug merchant to relocate to New Rochelle, New York, and to send young Kazan to Williams College from 1926 to 1930.

While working as a dishwasher in the college dining hall and as a bartender at fraternities, Kazan developed intense resentment for the affluence and privilege of his classmates. Equally offended by his father’s insistence that he do something “useful,” he kept to himself and majored in literature. Following his graduation with a BA, Kazan enrolled in the Yale School of Drama, where the unfolding Depression moved him toward left-wing causes.

At Yale, Kazan met Molly Day Thacher, the daughter of a former Yale president, whom he married on 2 December 1932. The couple had four children.

Kazan left Yale without earning a degree in 1932 and chose instead to join the Group Theatre. During his struggle through apprenticeship to membership in this group, Kazan acquired the nickname “Gadg” (for “gadget”), because he was, he once explained, “handy, useful, and able to cope with any minor emergency.” This recently founded troupe emulated the example of the Russian actor, director, and producer Konstantin Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theater and envisioned a disciplined training and close interaction among members that would lift the quality of Broadway fare. Although its goals were artistic and social, many of the members, including Kazan, insisted that they should be political as well. From 1934 to 1936, Kazan was a member of the Communist Party.

Kazan’s recognition as an actor coincided with Clifford Odets’s emergence as a playwright. Kazan achieved his first acclaim as Agate in Odets’s Waiting for Lefty (1935) and as Eddie Fuseli in Odets’s Golden Boy (1937), roles into which he channeled his intense drive and thwarted yearnings for respect and power. Following the Group’s disintegration in 1941 and a rut of typecasting that doomed his acting career, Kazan turned to directing and quickly achieved a string of successes that included Café Crown (1942), by Hy Kraft; Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (1942); and Jacobowsky and the Colonel (1944), by S. N. Behrman. By the end of World War II, Kazan had his pick of Broadway’s most promising fare, but his success was attended by worry that he was straying from his commitment to theatrical excellence and social consciousness.

From 1940 to 1945, Kazan had a tempestuous affair with Constance Dowling (many more affairs followed). As a condition of his reconciliation with his wife, Molly insisted that he undergo psychotherapy, an experience he found interesting enough to continue it for many years. Kazan’s blend of optimism and anxiety, of success and disorientation, attuned him to postwar uncertainties and spurred him to search for material with timeliness and punch. Arnaud D’Usseau and James Gow’s Deep Are the Roots (1945) was a worthwhile experiment; S. N. Behrman’s Dunnigan’s Daughter (1945) was a disappointment; and Maxwell Anderson’s Truckline Café (1946), which Kazan co-produced with Harold Clurman but did not direct, was an outright failure. Collectively, they provided the direction for which he was searching. In 1947, along with his former Group Theatre associates Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis, Kazan founded the Actors Studio to furnish performers better training for the psychological dramas he was beginning to favor. When his responsibilities became too demanding of his limited time, Kazan quit and recruited Lee Strasberg to run the Actors Studio.

That same year, Kazan directed Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, and, after initial reservations and reluctance, he agreed to handle Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire (the only play that he also directed as a film). He followed this gargantuan success two years later with Miller’s equally impressive Death of a Salesman (1949), making Kazan the director of two of the greatest American plays. Reflecting on these efforts, Kazan later told interviewers that he wanted his plays “to hit audiences in the stomach,” appropriate for a person whose career was bracketed by the memorable characters of the boxers Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy and Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Kazan hastened to explain, “A play should hit you where you live, but not just because it screams, but says it in terms of human beings struggling with each other, fighting.” Kazan’s conception of these actions was rooted in sociology, psychology, and emotion.

Meanwhile, Kazan’s debut film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), validated the long-term contract he had signed with Twentieth Century–Fox in 1944. He won respect for Boomerang (1947), Pinky (1949), and Panic in the Streets (1950), but he received his first Oscar in 1947 for Gentleman’s Agreement and its exposé of the anti-Semitism within the decencies of American life. These successes inspired the youthful director, who was not yet forty years old, to enlist the premier playwrights and writers—Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and John Steinbeck—to write original film scripts. They agreed to do so because they trusted his genius and his strong studio backing.

Kazan’s ambitious plans, however, ran afoul of an altered political climate that turned the act of criticizing the American way of life into a threat to national security. By the early 1950s, the looming menace of the Soviet Union, with its newly acquired nuclear capability, and the outbreak of the Korean War (1950–1953) empowered the congressional House Un-American Activities Committee to continue investigating Communist subversion within the entertainment industry. Simultaneously, Kazan seemed to lose his magic touch. On Broadway, George Tabori’s Flight into Egypt (1952) and Williams’s Camino Real (1953) were commercial failures. The film Viva Zapata! (1952), scripted by John Steinbeck, was a bitter disappointment, and the advent of CinemaScope and its biblical pageants in Technicolor threatened the black-and-white realism that was Kazan’s stock-in-trade.

In 1952 Kazan was summoned to Washington, D.C., to account for his Communist past. Like everyone else who had previously been a member of the Communist Party and who was currently working in the motion picture industry, he faced the threat of blacklisting if he could not prove that he was no longer a Communist. After an unsatisfactory congressional hearing behind closed doors, he agreed to a second appearance, during which he cooperated and offered the names of Communists with whom he had associated. This decision was widely perceived as a self-serving act of betrayal, and friends and colleagues abruptly turned against him—many for the remainder of his life. The decision irreparably damaged his reputation. In 1999, when the Motion Picture Academy honored Kazan with its lifetime achievement award, there was vociferous opposition from his colleagues—not to his professional accomplishments but to his testimony from forty-six years before.

Kazan responded to the setbacks of the early 1950s by immersing himself in work. Over the next three years, the high water mark of his career, he directed Broadway productions of Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy (1953) and Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and the films On the Waterfront (1954), for which he won his second Oscar, and East of Eden (1955). Although these works were written by four different authors, all feature male protagonists troubled by a waywardness that only a compassionate woman understands and respects. Kazan’s direction elicited performances that were unanimously acclaimed and distinctively different. On the Waterfront, with its glorification of a stool pigeon and his fierce determination to continue working, boldly acknowledged Kazan’s inspiration from his experience with the House Un-American Activities Committee, but the power of the drama in this and in the other three works resides in the poignant depiction of a man straining to hide and overcome painful, debilitating “mistakes.”

Kazan’s comeback reaffirmed the enduring appeal of his dramatizations of bruising psychological struggles and established him as a dominant force on Broadway and in Hollywood, one of the few directors to be a master of both. By this point he had been awarded Tonys for his direction of two of Arthur Miller’s plays, All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, and Oscars for Gentleman’s Agreement and On the Waterfront. Among his peers, he would be recognized as an actor’s director, because he discovered players like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Lee Remick and coached them to stardom. Others, like Tallulah Bankhead, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Burl Ives, Eva Marie Saint, Julie Harris, Lee J. Cobb, Pat Hinkle, and Natalie Wood, he guided to their finest performances. Performers from his films garnered twenty-one Academy Award nominations, and nine won the award.

By 1955 Kazan was once again a film director in demand and able to pick his assignments. However, his efforts grew strained and mannered. Baby Doll (1956) was controversial and A Face in the Crowd (1957) was original, but neither appealed to audiences. Splendor in the Grass (1961) did appeal to them, but reviewers faulted Kazan’s direction as busy and overblown. Conversely, when he had made a concerted effort to slow the tempo and savor the mood in Wild River (1960), everyone was disappointed. On Broadway, William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957) and Archibald MacLeish’s J. B. (1958), for which Kazan won a third Tony for direction, were solid successes, but both brought him little sense of accomplishment. He was, however, formidably challenged by Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), in large measure because he agreed to the project out of obligation and fretted that Tennessee Williams’s best work was behind him. Afterward, he announced that he would not direct another play by Williams.

These undertakings would have been a gratifying achievement and would have made a fulfilling career for any other director, but for Kazan they exacerbated a restless yearning for greater challenge. With escalating costs sharply reducing the number of Broadway shows that could raise financing, Kazan looked to the just-opening Lincoln Center as the brightest prospect for something new. His appointment as codirector of its Repertory Theatre came with generous funding and support for a troupe of actors; it both acknowledged his stature in New York theater and inspired visions of a national theater equivalent to those in Europe. However, the results were disappointing, and Kazan’s efforts were flayed by critics. Miller’s After the Fall (1964) came closest to success, but the show itself was upstaged by interest in Kazan’s reunion with Arthur Miller (who had publicly broken with Kazan following his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee) and Miller’s offering of a character with a startling resemblance to his dead wife, Marilyn Monroe.

During previews for After the Fall, Kazan’s wife, Molly, died of a stroke, and his distress over this sudden event was exacerbated by the fact that his current mistress, Barbara Loden, with whom he already had a son and whom he would marry on June 5, 1967, was playing Maggie, the Marilyn Monroe role. Haunted by a discontent that had originated before his wife’s death and by his disappointing Lincoln Center experience, Kazan became introspective, changed psychiatrists, and acknowledged that directing no longer engaged him. Having constructed a brilliant career from the work of others, he concluded that he needed to do his own writing. Although he was not ready to give up directing, doing his own work became more important than the well-funded productions he previously had favored.

Kazan’s initial effort was America America, a film script about the ordeal of a Greek immigrant fashioned from the experiences of his uncle. Kazan’s meager funding ran out before he finished shooting, and the project had to be shelved. When he reconfigured his script as a novel (1962), it attracted enough readers that he was able to raise the money to complete the film (1963). Although the black-and-white result looked like a throwback amid the film industry’s conversion to color, Kazan rose above his constraints and crafted numerous memorable scenes. He received Oscar nominations for directing and for best original screenplay, and the film received a nomination for best picture and an Oscar for art direction.

The Arrangement was conceived as a novel (1967) and never intended to be a film (1969). However, this story about an executive’s troubled abandonment of his successful career became a surprise best seller. Rather than relinquish his work to another director, Kazan negotiated to do the film himself, but this time the result was disappointing and solidified his commitment to writing over directing. Although he did direct The Visitors (1972) and The Last Tycoon (1976), he took greater pride in his novels: The Assassins (1971), The Understudy (1974), Acts of Love (1978), and The Anatolian (1982). His long, controversial, and revealing autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life, was published in 1988. Following the death of Barbara Loden in 1980, he married Frances Rudge on 28 June 1982. By the time Kazan died at his Manhattan home on 28 September 2003, he had six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Kazan received the Handel Medallion, New York City’s highest cultural award, in 1972. In 1983 he was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.

Kazan’s best work evokes a bygone era, either his own times or a past with which he identified, but it also endures and offers a taste of greatness. The Depression, World War II, and the cold war affected his life and inspired his work. Kazan had a lifelong preoccupation with American life and culture, the preoccupation of an outsider keenly aware of injustice and drawn to the hard lives of people down the social scale. The human suffering and social injustice at the heart of his material was crucial to his identity, talents, and aesthetic. Kazan’s career memorializes the outsider’s paradoxical centrality to the American experience.

Kazan’s personal papers are held by Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. The best source of information on Kazan is his own autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life (1988). There are also three books of his interviews: Kazan on Kazan (1974), by Michel Ciment; Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films (1999), with Jeff Young; and Elia Kazan: Interviews (2000), edited by Michael Baer. Richard Schickel, Elia Kazan: A Biography (2005), is the first complete biography of Kazan. Thomas H. Pauly, American Odyssey: Elia Kazan and American Culture (1983), is a book-length study of Kazan’s whole career. Much useful information can be found in Arthur Miller’s autobiography, Timebends: A Life (1987). See also Brenda Murphy, Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan: A Collaboration in the Theatre (1992). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 29 Sept. 2003).

Thomas H. Pauly

Kazan, Elia

views updated May 23 2018


Nationality: American. Born: Elia Kazanjoglou in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey, 7 September 1909; moved with family to New York, 1913. Education: Mayfair School; New Rochelle High School, New York; Williams College, Massachusetts, B.A. 1930; Yale Drama School, 1930–32. Family: Married 1) Molly Day Thatcher, 1932 (died 1963), two sons, two daughters; 2) actress Barbara Loden, 1967 (died 1980), one son; 3) Frances Rudge, 1982. Career: Actor, property manager, then director, Group Theatre, New York, from 1933; stage director, including plays by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, 1935 through 1960s; co-founder, with Cheryl Crawford, Actors' Studio, New York, 1948; appeared voluntarily before HUAC, admitting membership of Communist Party, 1934–36, and naming fellow members, 1952; began career as novelist, 1961; left Actors' Studio to direct newly formed Lincoln Center Repertory Company, 1962–64. Awards: Many awards for theatre work; Academy Award for Best Director, and Best Direction Award, New York Film Critics, for Gentleman's Agreement, 1947; International Prize, Venice Festival, for Panic in the Streets, 1950; Special Jury Prize, Venice Festival, for A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951; Oscar for Best Director, and Most Outstanding Directorial Achievement, Directors Guild of America, for On the Waterfront, 1954; Honorary doctorates from Wesleyan University, Carnegie Institute of Technology, and Williams College; Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1999. Address: c/o 432 W. 44th St., New York, NY 10036, U.S.A.

Films as Director:


The People of the Cumberlands (+ sc) (short)


It's up to You


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


The Sea of Grass; Boomerang; Gentleman's Agreement




Panic in the Streets


A Streetcar Named Desire ; Viva Zapata!; Man on a Tightrope


On the Waterfront


East of Eden (+ pr)


Baby Doll (+ pr, co-sc)


A Face in the Crowd (+ pr)


Wild River (+ pr)


Splendour in the Grass (+ pr)


America, America (+ sc, pr)


The Arrangement (+ pr, sc)


The Visitors


The Last Tycoon


Acts of Love (+ pr)


The Anatolian (+ pr)


Beyond the Aegean

Other Films:


Pie in the Sky (Steiner) (short) (role)


City for Conquest (Litvak) (role as Googie, a gangster)


Blues in the Night (Litvak) (role as a clarinetist)


The Screen Director (role as himself)


Sanford Meisner: The American Theatre's Best Kept Secret (Doob) (role as a himself)


L' Héritage de la chouette (The Owl's Legacy) (Marker) (role)


Liv till varje pris (Jarl) (role as himself)


By KAZAN: books—

America America, New York, 1961.

The Arrangement, New York, 1967.

The Assassins, New York, 1972.

The Understudy, New York, 1974.

Acts of Love, New York, 1978.

Anatolian, New York, 1982.

Elia Kazan: A Life, New York and London, 1988.

Beyond the Aegean, New York, 1994.

Elia Kazan: A Life, New York, 1997.

Kazan The Master Director Discusses His Films: Interviews with EliaKazan, edited by Jeff Young, New York, 1999.

By KAZAN: articles—

"The Writer and Motion Pictures," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1957.

Interview with Jean Domarchi and André Labarthe, in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), April 1962.

Article in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1963/January 1964.

Interview with S. Byron and M. Rubin, in Movie (London), Win-ter 1971/72.

Interview with G. O'Brien, in Inter/View (New York), March 1972.

"Visiting Kazan," interview with C. Silver and J. Zukor, in FilmComment (New York), Summer 1972.

"All You Need to Know, Kids," in Action (Los Angeles), January/February 1974.

"Hollywood under Water," interview with C. Silver and M. Corliss, in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1977.

"Kazan Issue" of Positif (Paris), April 1977.

"Visite à Yilmaz Güney ou vue d'une prison turque," with O. Adanir, in Positif (Paris), February 1980.

"L'Homme tremblant: Conversation entre Marguerite Duras et Elia Kazan," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1980.

Interview with Tim Pulleine, in Stills (London), July/August 1983.

Interview with P. Le Guay, in Cinématographe (Paris), Febru-ary 1986.

Interview in Time Out (London), 4 May 1988.

"Les américains à trait d'union," in Positif (Paris), June 1994.

"What a Director Needs to Know," in DGA Magazine (Los Ange-les), May-June 1996.

On KAZAN: books—

Clurman, Harold, The Fervent Years: The Story of the Group Theatreand the Thirties, New York, 1946.

Tailleur, Roger, Elia Kazan, revised edition, Paris, 1971.

Ciment, Michel, Kazan on Kazan, London, 1972.

Giannetti, Louis, Masters of the American Cinema, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1981.

Pauly, Thomas H., An American Odyssey: Elia Kazan and AmericanCulture, Philadelphia, 1983.

Michaels, Lloyd, Elia Kazan: A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, 1985.

Ciment, Michael, An American Odyssey: Elia Kazan, London, 1989.

Murphy, Brenda, Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan: A Collaboration in the Theatre, Cambridge, 1992.

On KAZAN: articles—

Stevens, Virginia, "Elia Kazan: Actor and Director of Stage and Screen," in Theatre Arts (New York), December 1947.

Archer, Eugene, "Elia Kazan: The Genesis of a Style," in FilmCulture (New York), vol. 2, no. 2, 1956.

Archer, Eugene, "The Theatre Goes to Hollywood," in Films andFilming (London), January 1957.

Neal, Patricia, "What Kazan Did for Me," in Films and Filming (London), October 1957.

Bean, Robin, "The Life and Times of Elia Kazan," in Films andFilming (London), May 1964.

Tailleur, Roger, "Elia Kazan and the House Un-American Activities Committee," in Film Comment (New York), Fall 1966.

"Kazan Issue" of Movie (London), Spring 1972.

Changas, E., "Elia Kazan's America," in Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.

Kitses, Jim, "Elia Kazan: A Structural Analysis," in Cinema (Bev-erly Hills), Winter 1972/73.

Biskind, P., "The Politics of Power in On the Waterfront," in FilmQuarterly (Berkeley), Autumn 1975.

"A l'est d'Eden Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), Novem-ber 1975.

Kazan Section of Positif (Paris), April 1981.

"Kazan Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 July 1983.

"Elia Kazan," in Film Dope (London), March 1984.

Michaels, Lloyd, "Elia Kazan: A Retrospective," in Film Criticism (Edinboro, Pennsylvania), Fall 1985.

Neve, Brian, "The Immigrant Experience on Film: Kazan's AmericaAmerica," in Film and History (New York), vol. 17, no. 3, 1987.

Nangle, J., "The American Museum of the Moving Image Salutes Elia Kazan," in Films in Review (New York), April 1987.

Georgakas, Dan, "Don't Call Him Gadget: Elia Kazan Reconsidered," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 16, no. 4, 1988.

Rathgeb, Douglas, "Kazan as Auteur: The Undiscovered East ofEden," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 16, no. 1, 1988.

McGilligan, Patrick, "Scoundrel Tome," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1988.

Butler, T., "Polonsky and Kazan. HUAC and the Violation of Personality," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1988.

Coursodon, Jean-Pierre, in Positif (Paris), October 1989.

Cahir, Linda Costanzo, "The Artful Rerouting of A Streetcar NamedDesire," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), April 1994.

White, J., "Sympathy for the Devil: Elia Kazan Looks at the Dark Side of Technological Progress in Wild River," in Literature/FilmQuarterly (Salisbury), October 1994.

Film-Dienst (Cologne), 19 December 1995.

Everschor, Franz, "Arrangement mit dem Schicksal," in Film-Dienst (Cologne), 16 January 1996.

Chase, Donald, "Watershed: Elia Kazan's Wild River," in FilmComment (New York), November-December 1996.

Benedetto, Robert, "A Streetcar Named Desire: Adapting the Play to the Film," in Creative Screenwriting (Washington, D.C.), Win-ter 1997.

Koehler, Robert, "One from the Heart," in Variety (New York), 1 March 1999.

* * *

Elia Kazan's career has spanned more than four decades of enormous change in the American film industry. Often he has been a catalyst for these changes. He became a director in Hollywood at a time when studios were interested in producing the kind of serious, mature, and socially conscious stories Kazan had been putting on the stage since his Group Theatre days. During the late 1940s and mid-1950s, initially under the influence of Italian neorealism and then the pressure of American television, he was a leading force in developing the aesthetic possibilities of location shooting (Boomerang, Panic in the Streets, On the Waterfront) and CinemaScope (East of Eden, Wild River). At the height of his success, Kazan formed his own production unit and moved back east to become a pioneer in the new era of independent, "personal" filmmaking that emerged during the 1960s and contributed to revolutionary upheavals within the old Hollywood system. As an archetypal auteur, he progressed from working on routine assignments to developing more personal themes, producing his own pictures, and ultimately directing his own scripts. At his peak during a period (1950–1965) of anxiety, gimmickry, and entropy in Hollywood, Kazan remained among the few American directors who continued to believe in the cinema as a medium for artistic expression and who brought forth films that consistently reflected his own creative vision.

Despite these achievements and his considerable influence on a younger generation of New York-based filmmakers, including Sidney Lumet, John Cassavetes, Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese, and even Woody Allen, Kazan's critical reputation in America has ebbed. The turning point both for Kazan's own work and the critics' reception of it was almost certainly his decision to become a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952. While "naming names" cost Kazan the respect of many liberal friends and colleagues (Arthur Miller most prominent among them), it ironically ushered in the decade of his most inspired filmmaking. If Abraham Polonsky, himself blacklisted during the 1950s, is right in claiming that Kazan's post-HUAC movies have been "marked by bad conscience," perhaps he overlooks how that very quality of uncertainty may be what makes films like On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and America America so much more compelling than Kazan's previous studio work.

His apprenticeship in the Group Theater and his great success as a Broadway director had a natural influence on Kazan's films, particularly reflected in his respect for the written script, his careful blocking of scenes, and, pre-eminently, his employment of Method Acting on the screen. While with the Group, which he has described as "the best thing professionally that ever happened to me," Kazan acquired from its leaders, Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg, a fundamentally artistic attitude toward his work. Studying Marx led him to see art as an instrument of social change, and from Stanislavski he learned to seek a play's "spine" and emphasize the characters' psychological motivation. Although he developed a lyrical quality that informs many later films, Kazan generally employs the social realist mode he learned from the Group. Thus, he prefers location shooting over studio sets, relatively unfamiliar actors over stars, long shots and long takes over editing, and naturalistic forms over genre conventions. On the Waterfront and Wild River, though radically different in style, both reflect the Group's quest, in Kazan's words, "to get poetry out of the common things of life." And while one may debate the ultimate ideology of Gentleman's Agreement, Pinky, Viva Zapata! and The Visitors, one may still agree with the premise they all share, that art should illuminate society's problems and the possibility of their solution.

Above all else, however, it is Kazan's skill in directing actors that has secured his place in the history of American cinema. Twenty-one of his performers have been nominated for Academy Awards; nine have won. He was instrumental in launching the film careers of Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, James Dean, Carroll Baker, Warren Beatty, and Lee Remick. Moreover, he elicited from such undervalued Hollywood players as Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Eva Marie Saint, and Natalie Wood perhaps the best performances of their careers. For all the long decline in critical appreciation, Kazan's reputation among actors has hardly wavered. The Method, which became so identified with Kazan's and Lee Strasberg's teaching at the Actors Studio, was once simplistically defined by Kazan himself as "turning psychology into behavior." An obvious example from Boomerang would be the suspect Waldron's gesture of covering his mouth whenever he lies to the authorities. But when Terry first chats with Edie in the park in On the Waterfront, unconsciously putting on one of the white gloves she has dropped as he sits in a swing, such behavior becomes not merely psychological but symbolic and poetic. Here Method acting transcends Kazan's own mundane definition.

His films have been most consistently concerned with the theme of power, expressed as either the restless yearning of the alienated or the uneasy arrangements of the strong. The struggle for power is generally manifested through wealth, sexuality, or, most often, violence. Perhaps because every Kazan film except A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Last Tycoon (excluding a one-punch knockout of the drunken protagonist) contains at least one violent scene, some critics have complained about the director's "horrid vulgarity" (Lindsay Anderson) and "unremitting stridency" (Robin Wood), yet even his most "overheated" work contains striking examples of restrained yet resonant interludes: the rooftop scenes of Terry and his pigeons in On the Waterfront, the tentative reunion of Bud and Deanie at the end of Splendor in the Grass, the sequence in which Stavros tells his betrothed not to trust him in America America. Each of these scenes could be regarded not simply as a necessary lull in the drama, but as a privileged, lyrical moment in which the ambivalence underlying Kazan's attitude toward his most pervasive themes seems to crystallize. Only then can one fully realize how Terry in the rooftop scene is both confined by the mise-en-scène (seen within the pigeon coop) and free on the roof to be himself; how Bud and Deanie are simultaneously reconciled and estranged; how Stavros becomes honest only when he confesses to how deeply he has been compromised.

—Lloyd Michaels

Elia Kazan

views updated May 29 2018

Elia Kazan

Elia Kazan (born 1909) is known as the preeminent director of works by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Kazan emerged as the leading exponent of psychological realism via his film and stage productions of the 1940s and 1950s. His works reflect both social struggle and personal pain.

Elia Kazan was born into a large family of Anatolian Greeks near Istanbul in 1909. Kazan's family came to the United States when he was four, and he grew up in the slums and suburbs of New York City. He was a reclusive child who read compulsively, often as an escape from working in the family business, the rug trade. Determined not to follow in his father's footsteps, the young Elia attended Williams College from 1926 to 1930, majoring in English literature. It was here that he developed his initial interest in theater, writing a prize-winning paper on the audience's emotional response to drama.

Kazan considered a career in the film industry and decided that more theatrical training would help him achieve that goal. He applied to the Yale School of Drama and was accepted, despite his lack of practical experience. From 1930 to 1932 Kazan immersed himself in all aspects of dramatic production at Yale. He found that he shared with several others an interest in social drama and the establishment of a left-wing alternative to Broadway theater. Before completing his degree, Kazan left graduate school to apprentice with the Group Theatre, an offshoot of the Theatre Guild.

The Group Theatre, fashioned after Stanislavski's famous Moscow Art Theatre, was founded by Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg, and Harold Clurman. The company's productions were attempts to combine social consciousness and artistic excellence. Kazan worked for the group in a variety of capacities—as press agent, stage manager, and actor. In 1934, with Art Smith, he recruited new playwrights, an effort that resulted in Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty. In its initial performance Kazan played Agate, who delivers the play's final appeal for a strike of cab drivers.

His next association was with the Workers' Laboratory Theatre (re-named the Theatre of Action in 1935), where he realized his ambition to direct, beginning with Peter Martin's The Young Go First The production, implementing Group Theatre techniques of improvisation and rehearsal exercises, featured Alfred Saxe. The Theatre of Action's film division also employed Kazan as a director of left-wing movies. This unit evolved into Frontier Films, known for its documentary realism and called by Variety the "Group Theatre of motion pictures." In 1936 Kazan returned to the group, which was now headed by Clurman only. He stayed until 1941, acting in Odets' Golden Boy and other works. The departure of Strasberg and Crawford also allowed him to direct.

In the early 1940s Kazan began to concentrate solely on directing, and in the first few years of the decade he directed a number of plays, most notably Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, starring Tallulah Bankhead. This production earned Kazan the 1942 New York Drama Critics' Award for Best Director. By 1945 Kazan was receiving offers to direct from both Broadway and Hollywood. He continued to produce successes in both arenas, with the film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the play All My Sons, the latter by a then-unknown young playwright named Arthur Miller.

In 1947, with Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis, Kazan founded the Actors' Studio as a kind of revival of the Group Theatre, with a focus on actor training rather than producing plays. When Lee Strasberg was eventually recruited as the head of the studio, Kazan's position became that of an occasional instructor and patron.

Kazan returned to directing with the play with which he had the greatest personal relationship—Miller's Death of a Salesman, starring Lee J. Cobb. Believing that the protagonist, Willy Loman, was a man who was "socially mistaught," Kazan considered the play to be "a story of love—the end of tragic love" between father and son. He also noted that "this play has to be directed with COMPASSION." Jo Mielziner's famous setting for this production reflected the fragile physical and psychological realities of Willy Loman. The play was a tremendous success, ran more than 700 performances, and garnered the Pulitzer Prize among other major awards.

During the next few years, Kazan spent more of his time as a film director. Notable among this work are A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), and East of Eden (1955). After the shooting of Streetcar Kazan was subpoenaed by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee to testify regarding any connection he had with members of the Communist Party working in the entertainment industry. Kazan, in a very painful position that would determine the future of his work, cooperated with the committee. He admitted that he had adopted communism for a time (which he had since renounced) and named several other party members with whom he had worked. He followed this up with newspaper ads, public addresses, and articles defending his testimony and anti-Communist position. Branded an "informer," Kazan found that a number of former associates would no longer work with him, including Harold Clurman and Arthur Miller.

Kazan threw himself back into his work, but his production of Flight Into Egypt closed on Broadway after only 46 performances. He then went to Germany to take over direction of Man on a Tightrope, but it also was a box-office failure. Kazan's next project was a Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' Camino Real, another financial disaster.

Kazan broke this string of disappointments with two Broadway successes, Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy and Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and the Oscar-winning film On the Waterfront, as well as East of Eden, which gave James Dean his first starring role.

After this successful comeback, Kazan established his own film company and produced Baby Doll (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), and several others, but they fared poorly. Kazan returned to the theater in 1957 to direct William Inge's Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Archibald MacLeish's J. B., and Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth.

In 1963 Kazan became co-director with Robert White-head of the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre. The company's opening production was Arthur Miller's After the Fall, directed by Kazan. Miller and Kazan were re-united after a split of nearly a decade. The play was a success, but Kazan's subsequent production of The Changeling, just before the first anniversary of the Repertory Theatre, was a disastrous effort, and he resigned.

Kazan finally decided to produce his own screenplay, on which he had been working for several years. This was America, America, a fictionalized version of his own family's emigration to the United States. The Arrangement, his next film, was quasi-autobiographical and a financial disappointment.

Kazan then turned to writing novels (including The Assassins) and directed one film, The Last Tycoon, in 1976. His 1988 autobiography, Elia Kazan: a Life, touches on the entire fabric of people and productions in a fascinating life. In Kazan's mid-eighties, irony resonated as in a dark script when Arthur Miller's allegory of the Communist blacklisting era, The Crucible, was revived on the New York stage. At the same time, Kazan was denied a Life Achievement Award by the American film Institute because of his cooperation with the UnAmerican Activities Committee.

Further Reading

Thomas H. Pauly, An American Odyssey: Elia Kazan and American Culture (1983, paperback 1985); and in Michel Ciment, Kazan on Kazan (1974). Also see Kazan's 1988 autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life.

Kazan, Elia

views updated May 21 2018

Elia Kazan

Born Elia Kazanjoglous, September 7, 1909, in Constantinople, Turkey; died of natural causes, September 28, 2003, in Manhattan, NY. Director and author. Director of stage and screen, Elia (pronounced EE–lee–yah) Kazan played an important role in bringing to life some of America's most treasured plays and movies. His intimate work with playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams transformed Broadway. Kazan was also known for his skill in dealing with actors and helped bring up some of the cinema's enduring stars, including Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty. Controversy followed Kazan for decades after his decision in the 1950s to testify before the House Un–American Activities Committee (HUAC), but his career never suffered.

When Kazan was four years old his father, a rug merchant, moved to New York from Constantinople, Turkey, and shortened the family name from Kazanjoglous to Kazan. The family lived in the Greek section of Harlem for a short time before moving to the suburb of New Rochelle. Despite the shortened name and growing up in the suburbs of New York, Kazan always considered himself an outsider. Expected to become a rug merchant like his father, Kazan decided to take a different route.

Kazan had an interest in film and literature and after high school he entered Williams College. At college, Kazan's sense of isolation and separateness was further enhanced. He was not invited to join a fraternity and instead worked as a bartender and waiter at their social gatherings. Kazan attributed some of his desire to succeed to the revenge fantasies he harbored during his days in college. He decided to study performing arts after seeing the influential film Battleship Potemkin. He graduated with honors in 1930 and attended Yale University Drama School for two years before heading to New York.

In New York, Kazan joined the Group Theatre. He studied as an actor with them and also worked as part of the stage crew. It was with the Group Theatre, which included famed actor and teacher Lee Strasberg and writer Clifford Odets, that Kazan became devoted to the "Method" form of acting—one which asked the actor to find a matching internal emotional truth to mimic the emotion exhibited by the character. Kazan eventually became disillusioned with the Group Theatre, particularly with the influence that the Communist Party held over the group.

Kazan began directing plays in 1935. During that time he was also acting in plays, including several written by Group Theatre member Odets such as Paradise Lost, Golden Boy, and Night Music. In 1940 he had his first film role, playing a gangster in City for Conquest. Despite offers to remain in Hollywood and continue acting, Kazan passed up a long–term contract with Warner Brothers and chose to concentrate on directing. He returned to New York. His first critical success came in 1942 with the comedy Cafe Crown. That same year his direction of Skin of Our Teeth won the New York Drama Critics Award.

It was not long before Kazan was noticed by Hollywood again—this time for his direction. In 1945 he made his directing debut with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in which he used actual locations in the city for some of the film's scenes instead of sets. The lead actors of the film won Academy Awards for their performances and Kazan went on to direct several other critically acclaimed as well as popularly successful films in the 1940s. Kazan continued to pioneer on–location filming with Boomerang!, which was shot in Connecticut. In 1947, Kazan won an Academy Award for Best Director for Gentleman's Agreement, which starred film icon Gregory Peck. The film addressed the issue of anti–Semitism and also won Best Picture. In 1949, Kazan directed Pinky, which successfully tackled issues of racism.

While his film career was gaining steam, Kazan continued directing award–winning Broadway plays. In 1947, he won a Tony award for his direction of Arthur Miller's All My Sons. His long collaboration with playwright Tennessee Williams began around this time, including his direction of A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth. Kazan also directed the highly successful production of Miller's Death of a Salesman. In 1948, Kazan, along with Lee Strasberg and others, formed the Actors Studio, which produced such stars as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

On April 10, 1952, Kazan made the most controversial decision of his life. On that day he appeared before HUAC and listed the names of eight former associates of his, calling them Communists. His personal relationships suffered the most. The testimony led to a long–standing rift between him and Miller. On the other hand, Kazan's directing career suffered little. He went on to direct such films as On the Waterfront, which won eight Oscars. In 1956, his film East of Eden introduced the young James Dean to filmgoing audiences.

Despite continuing success on Broadway—he won the New York Drama Critics award for Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959—Kazan became frustrated with the financial burdens and restrictions becoming prevalent in Broadway productions. He abandoned Broadway and began focusing on writing novels and screenplays. He also left the Actors Studio to co–direct the Lincoln Center Repertory Company. After two disastrous years with the Lincoln Center's first acting company, Kazan resigned.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, Kazan focused even more on writing. As a writer, Kazan wrote six novels and an autobiography. His novels America, America and The Arrangement were turned into films, which he also directed. One of the last films he directed was The Last Tycoon, made in 1976, starring De Niro. In his 1988 autobiography, Kazan said he turned to writing because he was tired of interpreting the work of others.

In 1999, Kazan faced controversy again when he was given a special award by the Motion Picture Academy. Even after 40 years, Kazan was still seen by some as a traitor and his award was protested. Others, including director Martin Scorcese and De Niro, supported the award and Kazan. During the award presentation many audience members withheld applause in protest, while others gave him a standing ovation.

Kazan was married three times. His first wife, playwright Molly Day Thacher, died in 1963 after a 31–year marriage. His second wife, actress Barbara Loden, died after 13 years of marriage. He is survived by his third wife, Frances Rudge, four children, three step–children, six grandchildren, and two great–grandchildren. Kazan died on September 28, 2003, of natural causes; he was 94. Bart Barnes of the Washington Post wrote, "[Kazan was] widely acclaimed as one of the 20th century's most innovative and influential American artists." His direction bolstered the work of American playwrights, introduced some of stage and screen's most influential actors, and created a kind of filmmaking that has influenced generations of movie makers.


E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,12590,00.html?eol.tkr (September 9, 2003); New York Times, September 29, 2003, p. A1, p. A20; Washington Post, September 29, 2003, p. A1, p. A9.

EveM. B.Hermann

Kazan, Elia

views updated Jun 11 2018

Kazan, Elia (1909–99) US film director and novelist, b. Turkey. Kazan was one of the founders of the Actors' Studio. His work in the cinema includes A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), and On the Waterfront (1954). He wrote two best-selling novels, America, America (1962) and The Arrangement (1967).

Kazan, Elia

views updated Jun 11 2018


KAZAN, Elia. American (born Turkey), b. 1909. Genres: Novels. Career: Film Director and Producer. Publications: America America, 1962; The Arrangement, 1967; The Assassins, 1972; The Understudy, 1974; Acts of Love, 1978; The Anatolian, 1982; Elia Kazan: A Life, 1988; Beyond the Aegean, 1994. Died 2003.

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