"What's called a difficult decision is a difficult decision because either way you go there are penalties."
- Kazan, describing his situation as a "friendly witness".
Elia Kazan (1909-2003) was born to Greek immigrants and became a pioneer in the performing arts as a director of several ambitious stage productions. He mounted the productions of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman
and Tennessee Williams
' A Streetcar Named Desire
. For the latter production, he cast a young unknown actor Marlon Brando
, a decision that revolutionized acting forever. In the movies, he directed Brando in the film adaptation of Streetcar, in addition to which he made On the Waterfront
for which he won an Oscar for Best Director and created a true Hollywood classic, and also in Viva Zapata!
. He also directed James Dean
in East of Eden
(though he personally didn't like Dean) and in his last film he directed Robert De Niro
in The Last Tycoon
. To put it simply Method Acting
owes Kazan a great deal.
He's also known for another reason. His decision to serve as a "friendly witness" for the House Committee for Un-American Activities at the height of the Red Scare
. He initially testified admitting to be a former communist in the 30s but he refused to "name names". He subsequently did do so, when placed under pressure. He also put out an ad in the newspapers justifying this decision and asking others to come forward. This made him Persona Non Grata
among many of his former leftist friends for whom Kazan could Never Live It Down
. Even when he won an Oscar in 1999 for Lifetime Achievement, there were protests inside the auditorium and outside. Kazan himself remained a liberal and a leftist and resented the Communists for monopolizing all kinds of opposition on social issues which remained a constant interest for him.
As a director, Kazan was a trailblazer in pushing forth sexually suggestive and aggressive content to audiences. Making films like Baby Doll
as well as A Face in the Crowd
a dark satire of media that anticipates films like Network
. His influence on American cinema was phenomenal with even his former friends
admitting his great talent
. He was especially influential on the New Hollywood
, Francis Ford Coppola
and Martin Scorsese
especially. The former was initially going to cast him as Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II
which eventually went to Lee Strasberg (famous acting teacher and rival) instead. In his later years, he found fame as a novelist and wrote an autobiography, Elia Kazan : A Life
that was highly praised for its good writing and for its fairly honest look at a contentious personality.
Kazan was married thrice. His second wife Barbara Loden was an actress (on Wild River
) who directed a film Wanda
which is a great film in its own right. He has several children and grandchildren active in film production. He died in 2003 but his legacy lives on.
Films directed by Elia Kazan include:
Provides Examples of tropes like:
- Anti-Hero : Generally Types I-III, his movies featured characters who tend to be very unlikable and even villains but who turn out to have something going for them. He introduced greater psychological complexity to American movies.
- Conflicting Loyalty : A theme in his life and his works. The conflict between duty, conscience, friendship and family honor in a situation with no clear right or wrong.
- Gray and Gray Morality : Kazan never set truck by conventional ideas of good vs. evil even calling it monstrous.
- Magnum Opus Dissonance : Known today for A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden and even Gentleman's Agreement, his own favorites were Wild River and America, America.
- Immigrant Patriotism: Felt this way towards America and America, America is the story of his uncle's epic journey to America from Anatolia, the same uncle who later made it possible for his parents to emigrate there.
- Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids! : His protagonists eventually learn this and Kazan claimed to have learned this himself.
- The Mentor : To Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and many, many others. A major figure in the American artistic landscape.