The 100 Essential Directors Part 5: Derek Jarman to Mike Leigh

Mid-way through our series, Day 5 is a glorious mishmash of international auteurist cinema. Today we go from saints and sinners, from Brookyln to Britain, from the beginning of time to the Dystopian future, and around the world and beyond.

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




Prev Page
Next Page





PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.


Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.


Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.