He joined the Group Theater in 1932, originally as an actor: he appeared in Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy by Clifford Odets and later acted in two films directed by Anatole Litvak—City for Conquest (40) and Blues in the Night (41). But direction was his real aim and by the mid-1940s he was the leading director of new plays on Broadway. This side to his work continued throughout most of his career: Truckline Cafe (46), All My Sons (47), A Streetcar Named Desire (47), Death of a Salesman (49), Carnino Real (53), Tea and Sympathy (53), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (55), The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (57), /B (58), Sweet Bird of Youth (59), and After the Fall (64).
Kazan’s first six films—all but one made for Fox—are barely recognizable as his. Their realism is in the muted postwar fashion, they are muffled by players like Dorothy McGuire, Gregory Peck, and feanne Crain, they take on controversial issues in a literal or discreet manner, and they seem to reflect the character of Darryl F. Zanuck as much as Kazan himself. Boomerang and Panic in the Streets profit from being thrillers, enhanced by unfamiliar locations and making their social points indirectly. Panic, especially, has some effective deep-focus photography of New Orleans by loe MacDonald that dramatizes the contrived sense of community. But the crusading pictures— Gentleman’s Agreement and Pinky—are naïve and clumsy, showing verv little awareness of the medium, and smothering their issues with sentimentality.
Kazans personal impact began only with Streetcar, a film taken from the stage, employing a method nurtured at the Actors Studio, founded by Kazan and Bobby Lewis in 1948. It was the new actor—originally Brando—that best expressed Kazan, although in this instance he was burdened by a traditionally florid actress, Vivien Leigh. Thus the film is more a conflict of acting styles than the poetic struggle Tennessee Williams described.
Of course, Kazan had directed Streetcar on Broadway. In that process, through the casting of Marlon Brando and the verv physical promotion of Brando’s Stanley Kowalski, Kazan actually countered some of the playwright’s intentions. Kazan was not a homosexual. He invariably needed some kind of sexual investment in a show—imaginative and actual. So he made the Stanley-Stella bond more central and arousing than Williams had intended. He also shifted
Blanche, from heroine to natural victim. And so the play worked in part, in 1947, because its poetry had been converted into a raw need Kazan could feel. That incident is a clue to his appetite for acting and actors. For Kazan backed the psychological thrust of Method acting most when he could himself identify with a character. In a real sense, he made the theatre as sexy as movies.
The next films are deeper explorations into emotional naturalism in acting: Brando as Zapata; Brando, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb in On the Waterfront; James Dean, Raymond Massey, and Julie Harris in East of Eden; Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, and Malden in Baby Doll. Zapata still looks an original movie, but On the Waterfront is glossy with skill and has less to do with the New York docks than with the mixture of grand guignol and neo-realism. It is certainly emotional, but the feelings are all planned in advance, and the possible comparison between the Brando who informs on the mob and Kazan's own readiness to talk is embarrassing.
East of Eden is Kazans best film: partly because of Dean’s prickly hesitation; partly because the absorbing clash of acting styles (Dean and Raymond Massey) suited Steinbeck’s high-class weepie novel; and also because CinemaScope seemed to stimulate Kazan into treating his camera with some of the emphatic care he lavished on actors. Baby Doll, while always a minor chamber play, is atmospheric and catches the tender humor of Williams. A Face in the Crowd was the conscience-stricken radical, crudely manhandling the media and unable to deal with an intransigent chief actor. Wild Biver is the concerned American thinking and feeling in unison, a more speculative film than Kazan usually allowed himself, subtle in its situation, its coloring, and its acting. Splendor in the Grass, however, is intense to the point of hysteria, the most extreme instance of Kazan’s emotional involvement with his characters, the source of all that is vital and most alarming in his work. As a result, it is a violent film, lurching between great beauty (especially in Natalie Wood’s performance) and excess.
At this stage, Kazan grew reflective on his own life. America America was based on his novel, as was The Arrangement, a verv obvious commentary on materialism in America. Sadly, the defects of that film seem to Kazan its greatest virtues. The novels he wrote in the sixties and seventies were solidly second-rate, overwritten, and underthought. They showed how banal the energy of a director could seem on the page. But in the woeful Last Tycoon, Kazan had lost his essential energy.
After 1980, he had appeared occasionally in documentaries about Greece or the Actors Studio. But his largest venture was the writing of his lengthy, controversial, and fascinating A Life. The autobiography is far and away his best book, destructively candid and boastful about his treatment of women, but a lasting work to be put beside his best films and his enormous glamoriza- tion of the American actor. For good and ill, this is one of the great lives in American theatre arts. But when the Academy gave him an honorary Oscar, in 1999, all the old enmities sprang up—and Kazan refused the chance of apologizing. He didn’t feel it, and that’s how he directed perfor-mances.
- The Understudy
- THE UNDERSTUDY swirls through a wealth of environments: the Broadway stage, a mind-blown safari in east Africa, a Hollywood film studio, a closing-night cast party in Boston, New York's underworld and its straight analog, the television industry.
- Elia Kazan: A Life
- Elia Kazan (September 7, 1909 - September 28, 2003) was an American director, producer, writer and actor, described by The New York Times as "one of the most honored and influential directors in Broadway and Hollywood history".
- Beyond The Aegean
- In the sequel to America America and The Anatolian, Stavros Topouzoglou prepares to return to his homeland in 1919, as Greece prepares to reclaim Anatolia from the Turks.
- The Under-study
- The Under-study
Kazan is a fascinating twentieth-century American. An immigrant, he was brought to America when he was only four. While he has never lost his Greek-Turkish roots—as witness America America—few native directors made films that so persistentlv dealt with American problems and subjects, or that were so absorbed in the American regard for sincere intensity of performance.
He is a superficial radical. From 1934-36, amid the Group Theater, Kazan was a member of the Communist party, and yet, in 1952, he reversed an earlier stand and declared the names of fellow Communists to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Some may have consented to that admission, but others felt betrayed and noted that shortly after the hearing Kazan signed a contract (at reduced salary) in Hollywood. From this, the question arises: how committed are his films?