Elia Kazan was an American director, described as “one of the most honored and influential directors in Broadway and Hollywood history”. He also produced, and wrote screenplays and novels. Born in the Ottoman Empire to Anatolian Greek parents, they emigrated to New York when he was four. He spent two years studying acting at Yale and then acted professionally before becoming a stage and film director. He co-founded the influential Group Theater in 1932 and Actors Studio in 1947, and together with Lee Strasberg, introduced Method acting to the American stage and cinema as a new form of self-expression and psychological “realism”. Having been an actor himself for eight years, he brought sensitivity and understanding of the acting process, and was later considered the ideal “actor’s director”.
Kazan introduced a new generation of unknown young actors to the movie audiences, including Marlon Brando and James Dean, but was most noted for drawing out the best dramatic performances from his actors. As a result, he directed 21 different actors to Oscar nominations, resulting in nine wins. He was considered “one of the consummate filmmakers of the 20th century”, after directing a continual string of successful films, including, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden. He won three Oscars as Best Director, three Tony Awards, and four Golden Globes. Among the other new actors he introduced to movie audiences for the first time, 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. He also elicited some of the best performances in the careers of actors like Natalie Wood and James Dunn. Producer George Stevens, Jr. concludes that Kazan’s films and new actors have “changed American moviemaking”.
Most of his films were concerned with personal or social issues of special concern to him. He writes, “I don’t move unless I have some empathy with the basic theme. In some way the channel of the film should also be in my own life.” His first such “issue” films was Gentleman’s Agreement, with Gregory Peck, which dealt with hidden anti-Semitism in America. It received 8 Oscar nominations and 3 wins, and Kazan’s first for Best Director. He followed it with Pinky, one of the first films to address racial prejudice against blacks. In 1954, he directed On the Waterfront, a film about union corruption in New York, which some consider “one of the greatest films in the history of international cinema.” A major film earlier in his career was A Streetcar Named Desire, an adaptation of the stage play which he had also directed. It received 12 Oscar nominations, winning 4, and was Marlon Brando’s widely acclaimed screen debut. In 1955, he directed John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which also introduced James Dean to movie audiences for the first time, 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, which cost him the respect of many liberal friends and colleagues, such as playwright Arthur Miller. Kazan later explains that he took “only the more tolerable of two alternatives that were either way painful and wrong”. Overall, Kazan influenced the films of the 1950s and 1960s by his run of provocative, issues-driven subjects, and acting. Moreover, his personal brand of cinema, employing real locations over sets, unknowns over stars, and realism over convenient genres, proved influential to a whole generation of independent filmmakers in the 1960s, such as Sidney Lumet, John Cassavetes, Arthur Penn, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese. Film author Ian Freer concludes that “If his achievements are tainted by political controversy, the debt Hollywood ? and actors everywhere ? owes him, is enormous.”