The 100 Essential Directors Part 5

Derek Jarman to Mike Leigh

by PopMatters Staff

14 August 2011


Elia Kazan

Elia Kazan
(1909 - 2003)

Three Key Films: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955)

Underrated: A Face in the Crowd (1957). Andy Griffith made his film debut in this searing drama that examined the then-new medium of television and the power it has to manipulate the public. Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay, and Griffith turns in an exhaustive, manic performance as “Lonesome” Rhodes, an Arkansas yokel who becomes a radio host and then a television sensation. Patricia Neal is the radio reporter who discovers Rhodes; Walter Matthau is the television writer who will compete with Rhodes for her affection, both performances that benefit from Kazan’s signature approach with his actors, a combination of filmic style and directorial restraint. The film is allegedly based on real public figures (Will Rogers? Arthur Godfrey?), yet it remains profoundly prescient in its topics, from the corruptive power of celebrity to the gullibility of the public.

Unforgettable: Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), the waterfront crime boss, has given Charlie Malloy (Rod Steiger) an impossible assignment: He must either convince his brother Terry (Marlon Brando) to “dummy up” and refuse to testify against Friendly or he must give Terry over to be killed. The conversation takes place in the back of a car, and it’s surely one of the key scenes that changed film acting. Brando gets all of the attention as the former prize-fighter who “coulda been a contenda” instead of getting a one-way ticket to Palookaville, but Steiger is masterful as well, his pained expression telling the story of two orphans coming to tragic terms with hard bargains and lost fights.


A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

The Legend: In 1999, Elia Kazan received an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. Leading up to the ceremony, many protested the decision and others vowed not to applaud the 90-year-old film legend when the award was presented. When Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro introduced Kazan that evening, some applauded, some didn’t. The event was a striking reminder that, 50 years after Kazan testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, some key factions in Hollywood had still not forgotten nor forgiven Kazan, even when recognizing Kazan as one of the giants of 20th century cinema, a man who changed American filmmaking.

Kazan was born in what is today Istanbul in 1909 and emigrated to the United States with his parents four years later. Through his and his parents’ struggles in their home countries and the challenging opportunities in America, Kazan developed an ardent concern for social justice and a passionate appreciation for the American Dream, two themes that would recur throughout his film career.

He would make his first mark on the stage, joining the Group Theater, a coalition of actors dedicated to telling socially and culturally relevant stories of the time. It was with the Group Theater in the 1930s that Kazan directed his first plays, including Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.

In 1947, Kazan founded the Actors Studio, which, with Lee Strasberg as director, would establish “method acting” and soon earn the reputation as the greatest finishing school for actors in the country, teaching the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Karl Malden. For the Actors Studio, Kazan would direct Brando in a new stage version of Streetcar, a pairing that Kazan would reunite in 1951 for the film version.

Kazan’s first film was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), which established the director’s concern for social issues, followed by Gentleman’s Agreement, a film that boldly took on anti-Semitism.  The film, starring Gregory Peck would take home the Best Picture Oscar and win Kazan his first Best Director Oscar for 1947. Next came Pinky in 1949, one of the first films to thoroughly examine the effects of racism against blacks in the American south, as well as the phenomenon of “passing”.

In these early films, Kazan helped establish a new American realism in filmmaking. Taking his cues from the Italian Neorealism movement, Kazan preferred on-location shooting, natural light and sound, socially relevant stories of common citizens, the absence of clear-cut resolutions, and the use of relatively unknown actors.  Often called an “actor’s director”, Kazan was, by all accounts, a masterful acting coach. As Brando would later testify, “He was an arch-manipulator of actors’ feelings.” In all, Kazan would direct 21 different actors to Oscar nominations and would establish the film careers of Brando, Dean, Malden, Warren Beatty, Julie Harris, Andy Griffith, Eli Wallach, Eva Marie Saint, and dozens of others.

In the 1950s, Kazan hit a creative stride that few have ever matched. In 1951, Streetcar was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, made Brando a major star, and popularized method acting in film. It was the first of three films that paired Kazan and Brando, followed by Viva Zapata! (1952), a biopic of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, and On the Waterfront in 1954, arguably Kazan’s masterpiece.

On the Waterfront came two years after Kazan testified before the HUAC, eventually naming eight people who had, like himself, previously been a member of the American Communist Party. While Waterfront stands on its own, it’s difficult to watch the film without thinking of Kazan’s personal battle with his decision, as Terry Malloy (played by Brando) struggles with his conscience and ultimately testifies against his friends.

Kazan would go on to adapt John Steinbeck in the stunning East of Eden (1955), adapt Tennessee Williams again in the controversial black comedy Baby Doll (1956), make a star of Andy Williams in the media exposé A Face in the Crowd (1956), introduce Warren Beatty and revitalize Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass (1961), and adapt his own autobiography in America America (1963), among other films, totaling 20 in all. Indeed, despite Kazan’s political behaviors, it remains inarguable that few directors made more permanent contributions to filmmaking. Steve Leftridge



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