Elia Kazan (1909-2003)

Elia Kazan
Elia Kazan

Elia Kazan was a stage and movie director who co-founded "The Actors Studio" in New York, and directed two of the most profound and influential theatrical dramas in Broadway history, 'A Streetcar Named Desire' in 1947, and 'The Death of a Salesman' in 1948. He was a firm advocate of 'method' acting, originally developed by Konstantin Stanislavski and which reached its most successful fruition in the work of one of Kazan's protegees, Marlon Brando.

Kazan also became one of the most influential figures in American cinema, winning Academy Awards as Best Director for 'Gentleman's Agreement' in 1948, and 'On the Waterfront' in 1954, and receiving two other Best Director nominations for 'A Streetcar Named Desire' in 1951, and 'East of Eden' in 1955.

He directed no less than 21 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances, and his films have earned a total of 22 Academy Awards and 62 nominations, including two Directing Oscars for Kazan himself. He also received an honorary award in 1999 in recognition of his "long, distinguished and unparalleled career."

Kazan wrote several novels, including 'The Arrangement', published in 1967, which became a best seller, and his autobiography, published in 1988, which is entitled "Elia Kazan: A Life".

His work embraced controversy and addressed such issues as racism, alcoholism, public corruption and anti-Semitism. He was undoubtedly one of the giants of American cinema, but he lost many friends during the McCarthy Communist witch-hunts in the early 1950's when he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and named names which caused the blacklisting of many promising talents in Hollywood because of their political beliefs. The resentment he stirred up then continues undiluted to this day.

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Elia Kazan was born Elia Kazanjoglous in Istanbul on 7 September, 1909. His parents were Anatolian Greeks and in 1913 his family emigrated to America and settled in New York, where his father, George, started in business as a rug merchant, bringing his family to join him one by one.. After schooling in New York City and graduating from Williams College, Massachusetts, Kazan entered Yale and studied drama there from 1930 to 1932. Despite his father's expectations that he would enter the family rug business, he decided on an acting career.

Acting Career

Kazan acted professionally for eight years before becoming a director. In 1932 he joined the New York Group Theater where he met for the first time such progressive thinkers as Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, and Stella Adler. In 1935 he appeared in 'Waiting for Lefty' and 'Golden Boy' by Odets and later acted in two films directed by Anatole Litvak - 'City for Conquest' in 1940 and 'Blues in the Night' in 1941. But direction was his real aim and after starting to direct some of the Group's plays in the mid 1930's, within a few years he had established a reputation as one of Broadway's finest talents, making his mark particularly strongly with Thornton Wilder's production 'The Skin of Our Teeth' in 1942.


In 1945 he started his Hollywood career with 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' but then returned to Broadway to begin working firstly with Arthur Miller on 'All My Sons' and then Tennessee Williams on 'A Streetcar Named Desire'.

After World War II his movie directing career began in earnest with 'Gentleman's Agreement' in 1947, an indictment of anti-semitism in society. The movie, which was an adaptation of Laura Z. Hobson's novel, starred Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire and received eight Academy Award nominations winning three Oscars, including one for Best Picture and one for Kazan for Best Director.

He followed this success with the crime drama 'Boomerang' in the same year and then in 1949 had another major success with 'Pinky', the story of a light-skinned black girl who returns to her roots to resume life as a black. Three of the stars received Academy nominations and for Ethel Waters it was only the second time in history that the work of a black actress had been so nominated.

Kazan had directed 'A Streetcar Named Desire' on Broadway in 1947, successfully launching the career of Marlon Brando, and he repeated the success with Brando in the screen version in 1951. The film received twelve nominations in all including one for Best Picture, and all four of the movie's leading actors received Oscar nominations for their performances, Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, with only Brando, remarkably, not actually winning the Oscar.

HUAC 1952

After 'Streetcar' Kazan got embroiled in the controversial Communist witch-hunt and was called to give testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). In his first appearance, in January, 1952, he admitted to an 18-month membership in the Communist Party during the 1930's, but he refused to give names of Communist sympathisers. In his second, in April of that year, he named a small number of Party officials from seventeen years earlier and also eight members of the Group Theatre, which led to all of them being blacklisted. Although Kazan defended his actions by saying that he had given names of people already known to the committee, it is undeniable that lives were damaged and careers ruined.

When the Academy gave him an honorary Oscar, in 1999, all the old enmities sprang up. Many hackles rose in the American film making community - and Kazan refused the chance of apologizing. He didn't feel it, so he didn't do it.

Hollywood Success

Kazan next directed two movies which were commercial failures, 'Viva Zapata!' in 1952 with Marlon Brando and 'Man on a Tightrope' the following year with Fredric March. The contrast with his next movie could not have been more striking. 'On the Waterfront', made in 1954, was an outstanding success with both the critics and the public. The movie, which was about the defiance of a young dock worker towards his corrupt union, received twelve Academy Award nominations and won eight Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Kazan, Best Actor for Brando and Best Actress for Eva Marie Saint.

Kazan continued to make movies of great distinction. 'East of Eden' in 1955 gained him another Academy nomination for Best Director, and is one of Kazan's best films, partly because of James Dean's prickly hesitation and partly because of the absorbing clash of acting styles (Dean and Raymond Massey) which suited Steinbeck's novel. The following year Kazan directed 'Baby Doll', catching the tender humor of Tennessee Williams. The movie received four Academy Award nominations but was not successful at the box-office.

'A Face In the Crowd' in 1957 was the conscience-stricken radical, crudely manhandling the media and unable to deal with an intransigent chief actor. 'Wild River' in 1960 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' in 1961, 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.

In 1961 Kazan published his first novel, 'America, America' based on the arrival of his own family from Eastern Europe and in 1962 he filmed it and received three more Academy Award nominations. He also directed in 1969 the movie version of his second novel 'The Arrangement', a commentary on materialism in America. His novels are not highly regarded and show that his artistic talents did not extend to the written word.

Kazan's considerable movie successes did not prevent him from continuing to direct for the stage. So, he directed 'Camino Real' and 'Tea and Sympathy' in 1953, 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' in 1955, 'The Dark at the Top of the Stairs' in 1957, 'Sweet Bird of Youth' in 1959 and 'After the Fall' in 1963. He received three Tony Awards, winning for 'All My Sons', 'Death of a Salesman', and 'J.B.'


Kazan married three times. His first marriage to playwright Molly Day Thacher was from 1932 until her death in 1963 and produced two daughters and two sons. His second marriage was to the actress Barbara Loden from 1969 until her death in 1980, producing one son and lastly, he married Frances Rudge in 1982, the marriage ending with his death.

Whatever one's personal opinion, it is undeniable that Kazan's is one of the great lives in American theatre and cinema. He made an impressive transition from top Broadway director into one of the major film makers of his time.

Elia Kazan died of natural causes on 28 September 2003, in New York City. He was 94.

Elia Kazan Academy Awards

Two Wins:
Best Director ... Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
Best Director ... On the Waterfront (1954)

Five Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Best Director ... East of Eden (1955)
Best Director ... America America (1963)
Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen ... America America (1963)

Honorary Award:
"In appreciation of a long, distinguished and unparalleled career during which he has influenced the very nature of filmmaking through his creation of cinematic masterpieces." (1968)

Elia Kazan Filmography

The People of the Cumberland (Documentary short)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Watchtower Over Tomorrow (Documentary short) (uncredited)
The Sea of Grass
Gentleman's Agreement
Panic in the Streets
Viva Zapata!
Man on a Tightrope