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by Bamber Gascoigne

Elia Kazan (1909-2003) - Elia Kazanjoglous


American stage and film director, whose best-known works include the Oscar winning films Gentleman's Agreement (1948) and On the Waterfront (1954). Many of Elia Kazan's works have social or political theme, but he lost many friends, when he offered names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the world of directors, Kazan stood as one of the giants of both Broadway and Hollywood.

'Since talent is so often the scar tissue over a wound, perhaps I had more than most men. Study those you admire for what they've accomplished, and you may be able to identify the painful and costly events that made them despair for a time but that, in the end, they had to thank for the fortitude of spirit that made it possible for them to achieve what they did.' (from Elia Kazan: A Life, 1988)

Elia Kazan was born in Istanbul (according to some sources Kayseri) of Greek parentage. In 1913, at the age of four, his family emigrated to the US and settled in New York City, where his father, George Kazanjoglous, became a rug merchant. Kazan's father expected that his son would go into the family business, but his mother, Athena, encouraged Kazan to make his own decisions.

Kazan attended public schools in New York City and New Rochelle, N.Y. After graduating from Williams College, Massachusetts, Kazan studied drama at Yale. In the 1930s Kazan acted with New York's Group Theater. Its other members included among others Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, and Stella and Luther Adler. During this period Kazan earned his nickname 'Gadg,' short for Gadget – he never learned to love the name. The cast of Johnny Johnson, which opened in November 1936 at the cavernous 44th Street Theatre, included numerous players who were to make their names on stage and screen: Kazan, John Garfield, Morris Carnovsky, Sanford Meisner, Lee J. Cobb, Paula Miller (Strasberg), Albert Dekker, Luther Adler, and Russell Collins in the title role. The music was composed by Kurt Weill, known for his theatrical collaborations with Bertolt Brecht.

For about 19 months in 1934-36, Kazan was a member of a secret Communist cell. In 1947 Kazan founded the Actor's Studio with Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis. He directed his first stage play in 1935 and in the 1940s he gained fame as one of Broadway's finest talents. Kazan was especially acclaimed for his powerful and realistic direction of the plays of Tennessee Williams, such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Arthur Miller, such as Death of a Salesman (1948). Other stage successes included The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), a huge hit based on Thornton Wilder's history of human race, All My Sons (1947), and Tea and  Sympathy (1953). Love Life, written by Alan Jay Lerner and set to music by Kurt Weill, opened at the 46th Street Theatre on October 7, 1948, and had a run of 252 performances. Its unconventional narrative and criticism of American values of free enterprise and professional ambition did not appeal to audience empathy. At one point the male protagonist Sam Cooper sings, "I've got my freedom, / The perfect life! / Don't have a fam'ly, a home, a wife! / This is the life! / The life for me!"

The Skin of Our Teeth, written by Thornton Wilder, earned Kazan his first New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. After Streetcar, Kazan participated very actively in the construction of Williams's texts for the stage. He sent long letters to Williams, who often made substantial changes in his plays. In 1955 Williams said that he felt Kazan has usurped his authority as writer with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Critics said that Kazan brought commercial values into the artist's domain.

As a film director Kazan started with documentaries and made his first feature film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1945. It was a dramatization of Betty Smith's novel about a Brooklyn family in the early years of the 20th century. Winning the veteran actor James Dunn an Oscar it secured Kazan's place with Fox for the next nine years. In 1947 Kazan won the Academy Award as the best director for Gentleman's Agreement. Gregory Peck played a high-principled reporter writing a story of Anti-Semitism. Racial theme's continued in Pinky (1949), about a black girl and her identity crisis – she is so light-skinned that she could pass for a white.

Kazan's co-operation with Marlon Brando, the most famous student of the Actors Studio, was launched with the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which was adapted into screen in 1951. The relationship between the warm and practical Stella (Kim Hunter) and Brando as the self-possed Stanley is directed dramatically and truthfully. Vivien Leigh as Blanche du Bois repeated her theatrical interpretation and Karl Malden was good as the hoped-for suitor. "Kazan is the best actor's director you could ever want," Brando said later, "because he was an actor himself, but a special kind of actor. He understands things that other directors do not. He also inspired you. Most actors are expected to come with their parts in their pockets and their emotions spring-loaded, when the director says, "Okay, hit it," they go into a time-slip. But Kazan brought a lot of things to the actor and he invited you to argue with him. He's one of the few directors creative and understanding enough to know where the actor's trying to go. He'd let you play a scene almost any way you'd want." (Conversations with Marlon Brando by Lawrence Grobel, 1991, p. 70)

Leigh won an Academy Award for Best Actress and Karl Malden for Supporting Actor.  Manny Farber in the Nation (October 20, 1951) did not like the film: "Everything that kept the Broadway Streetcar, from spinning off into ridiculous melodrama – everything thoughtful, muted, three-dimensional – has been raped, along with poor Blanche Dubois, in the Hollywood version... Brando, having fallen hard for the critics' idea that Stanley is simply animal and slob, now screams and postures and sweeps plates off the table with an apelike emphasis that unfortunately becomes predictable." 

Brando had central roles in Viva Zapata! (1952) and On the Waterfront (1954), which won eight Oscars. The film was based on Budd Schulberg's account of corruption in N.Y.C. harbour unions. Schulberg himself had also testified as a friendly witness before the Congressional committee. There were more directors, screenwriters, actors and others who couldn't continue their career in film business, when they made the opposite decision. The scene in a taxicab, where Brando, playing Terry Malloy, ex-pug and longshoreman, tells his brother (Rod Steiger) that he coulda been a contender, instead of a bum, is a part of film history. Lee J. Cobb played the corrupt Union boss, Eva Marie Saint was Malloy's girl friend, and Karl Malden was the local priest. The film received twelve Academy Award nominations. Leonard Bernstein's score drew heavily on Aaron Copland's early symphonic-jazz style. It was nominated for the Oscar, but lost to Dimitri Tiomkin's The High and the Mighty, a John Wayne film; its title song was sung by Johnny Desmond.

The theme of conflicting loyalties had parallels to Kazan's own life. He had given a testimony in 1952 to the House Un-American Activities and admitted past membership in the Communist party and named others from his group. "No one who did what I did, whatever his reasons, came out of it undamaged," Kazan wrote in his autobiography Elia Kazan: A Life. "I did not. Here I am, thirty-five years later, still worrying over it. I knew what it would cost me. Do I now feel ashamed of what I did? ... The truth is that within a year I'd stopped feeling guilty or even embarrassed about what I'd done..."

By cooperating with HUAC Kazan saved his Hollywood  career. "I don't like Kazan," said the blacklisted filmmaker Abraham Polonsky, "but I try not to confuse my moral hatreds with my aesthetic hatreds. He made a lot of good pictures, so you could say he deserves an award for his work – I just wouldn't want to give it to him." (The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan: the Politics of the Post-HUAC Films by Ron Briley, 2017, pp. xiv-xv) Before naming Clifford Odets in his testimony, Kazan pratically asked for the playwright's permission to do so.

Kazan's next film, East of Eden (1955), was based on John Steinbeck's novel. "East of Eden is more personal to me," Kazan said. "It is more my own story. One hates one's father, one rebels against him; finally one cares for him, one recovers oneself, one understands him, one forgives him and one says to oneself, 'Yes, he is like that' . . . one is no longer afraid of him, one has accepted him." (James Dean: The Mutant King: a Biography by David Dalton, 2001, p. 162)  The central role was played by James Dean, who was hailed as "a second Brado." Kazan disliked Dean, and he was too cute for Steinbeck's pretensions, but at the same the author acknowledged his talents as an actor.

Baby Doll (1956) was constructed from two of Tennessee Williams's short plays and dealt with sex in the decadent Deep South. A Face in the Crowd (1957) was based on Budd Schulberg's short story about a popular television personality (Andy Griffith), who develops high political ambitions and starts to climb to power. Wild River (1960) was set at the end of the Depression. Kazan dealt with Tennessee Authority Valley's plans to flood the country side and build dams. Montgomery Cliff played a T.V.A. agent who falls in love with Lee Remick. During the shooting Clift stayed sober most of the time and got close to Remick. "I wanted their scenes to show ambivalence – attraction, repulsion, fear, love," said Kazan later. "I'd literally stop the action time and time again and just zero in on the intensity of their feeling."

Splendor in the Grass (1961) was Kazan's last hit movie. Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty played young lovers, Deanie and Bud, in the Twenties, just before the Depression. "Kazan may have spent two years trying," wrote Arthur B. Clark in Films in Review (November 1961), "but he has not gotten it right. Once again the hatred of American life he puts into his films results in caricatures. In fact, some of the scenes in Splendor in the Grass are so repulsive they seem deliberately calculated to denigrate the US in foreign eyes." Kazan began a love affair with Barbara Loden, cast in the role of Bud's older sister, Ginny. In his autobiography Kazan tells that he was at that time  out of control: "During every lunch break, I enjoyed my lover in her dressing room."

On stage Kazan continued his interpretations of Tennessee Williams's and Arthur Miller's plays and worked also with such playwrights as Robert Anderson, William Inge. Kazan was Marilyn Monroe's lover before Arthur Miller married her, but she did not play in his films. After his wife Molly learned of the affair, Kazan wrote to her, "If you divorce me, I’ll tell you plainly I will in time get married again and have more children."

Kazan's second wife, the actress Barbara Loden, was casted in the role of Marilyn Monroe in After the Fall, written by Arthur Miller. Kazan's films America, America (1963), following the adventures of a young Anatolian Greek immigrant (Stathis Giallelis), and The Arrangement (1969), starring Kirk Douglas, were based on his own novels. "I enjoyed doing the picture," Douglas recalled in his book of memoir, The Ragman's Son (1989). "Kazan was trying to do something different, bold, go inside the head of my character in all his confusion over his career, his women, his father, his life. Screening of the picture drew mixed reactions. In the editing, Kazan changed the ending. I felt that he hadn't made the movie that was based on his book, the movie that he had shot." (The Ragman's Son by Kirk Douglas, 1988, p. 375) 

In the 1970s Kazan made The Visitors (1972), about two Vietnam vets, who invade the house of third vet. The Last Tycoon (1976), his last film, was set in Hollywood in the 1930s. It was based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, adapted by Harold Pinter. Robert de Niro was a movie producer, whose character was inspired by the famous Irving Thalberg. Both films reveived mixed reviews – The Visitors was considered a total failure, and The Last Tycoon "so enervated it's like a vampire movie after the vampires have left." (New Yorker) From the 1970s Kazan devoted more of his time to writing, publishing the novels The Understudy (1974) and Acts of Love (1978). In the 1980s appeared The Anatolian  (1982) and Kazan's autobiography Elia Kazan: A Life (1988).

In 1983 Kazan was honoured for his Life Achievement in a Kennedy Center ceremony. When he received in 1999 the Honorary Oscar, Warren Beatty rose and applauded and Nick Nolte remained seated stony-faced; many in the audience hissed. Kazan's films earned 22 Academy Awards and 62 nominations, including two Directing Oscars. He was married three times; all his wifes were blondes. "Being Greek, blondness is my fetish," Kazan wrote in The Arrangement. In 1932 he married Molly Day Thacher, a playwright; they had four children. She died in 1963. Barbara Loden, an actress, writer and director, whom he married in 1967, died in 1980. From 1982 Kazan was married to Frances Rudge. Elia Kazan died on September 28, 2003, at his home in Manhattan.

For further reading: Elia Kazan: Interviews, ed. William Baer (2000); Kazan – The Master Director Discusses His Films, ed. by Jeff Young (1999); Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan by Brenda Murphy (1992); A Life by Elia Kazan (1998); Elia Kazan: A Guide to References and Resources by Lloyd Michaels (1985); Elia Kazan: A Biography by Richard Schickel (2005); Elia Kazan: The Cinema of an American Outsider by Brian Neve (2009); Kazan Revisited, edited by Lisa Dombrowski (2011); The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan: the Politics of the Post-HUAC Films by Ron Briley (2017)

Fiction and non-fiction:

  • America, America, 1962 (with an introd. by S.N. Behrman)
  • The Arrangment: A Novel, 1967
    - Sopimus elämän kanssa (suom. Jussi Nousiainen, 1973)
  • The Assassins, 1972
    - Pelon maa ( suom. Jaakko Lavanne, 1976)
  • Kazan on Kazan, 1973 (interviews with Michel Ciment)
  • The Understudy: A Novel, 1974
  • Kazan Reader, 1977
  • Acts of Love, 1978
    - Rakkauden kaikki teot (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1979)
  • The Anatolian, 1982
  • Elia Kazan: A Life, 1988
  • An American Odyssey, 1989 (edited by Michel Ciment)
  • Beyond the Aegean, 1994
  • Kazan on Directing, 2009
  • The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan, 2014 (edited by Albert J. Devlin; with Marlene J. Devlin)


  • People of the Cumberland, 1937 (documentary short)
    - also prod., screenplay, written by Erskine Caldwell, Ben Maddow, dir. by Elia Kazan, Jay Leyda, Sidney Meyers, Bill Watts
  • Blues in the Night, 1941
    - actor only; based on Edwin Gilbert's play Hot Nocturne, dir. by Anatole Litvak, starring Priscilla Lane, Betty Field and Richard Whorf
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1945
    - screenplay by Tess Slesinger, Frank Davis, based on Brry Smith's novel, starring Peggy Ann Garner, James Dunn, Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell
  • The Sea of Grass, 1947
    - screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, Vincent Lawrence, based on Conrad Richter's novel, starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn
  • Boomerang!, 1947
    - screenplay by Richard Murphy, starring Dana Andrews, Jane Wyatt, Lee J. Cobb, Cara Williams
  • Gentleman's Agreement, 1947
    - based on Laura Z. Hobson's novel, screenplay Moss Hart, starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, Anne Revere
  • Pinky, 1949
    - based on Cid Ricketts Summer's novel Quality, screenplay by Philip Dunne and Dudley Nichols, starring Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, Ethel Waters, William Lundigan
  • Panic in the Streets, 1950
    - screenplay by Richard Murphy, Enward and Edna Anhalt, starring Jack Palance and Richard Widmark
  • A Streetcar Named Desire 1951
    - written by Tennessee Williams from his play, starring Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden
  • Viva Zapata!, 1952
    - written by John Steinbeck, starring Marlon Brando, Joseph Wiseman, Jean Peters, Anthony Quinn
  • Man on a Tightrope, 1953
    - screenplay by Robert Sherwood, starring Fredrick March, Cameron Mitchell, Adolphe Menjou
  • On the Waterfront, 1954
    - written by Budd Schulberg from his novel, starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden
  • East of Eden, 1955 (also prod.)
    - screenpay by Paul Osborn from John Steinbeck's novel, starring Raymond Massey, James Dean, Julia Harris, Jo Van Fleet
  • Baby Doll, 1956 (script, prod.)
    - based on Tennessee Williams's short plays, starring Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, Carroll Baker
  • A Face in the Crowd, 1957 (also prod.)
    - written by Budd Schulberg, from his story Your Arkansas Traveller, starring Andy Griffith, Lee Remick, Walter Matthau, Patricia Neal
  • Wild River, 1960 (also prod.)
    - screenplay by Paul Osborn, novels Borden Deal, William Bradford Huie, starring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet
  • Splendor in the Grass, 1961 (also prod.)
    - screenplay by William Inge, starring Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle
  • America, America, 1963 (also prod., screenplay from own novel)
    - starring Stathis Giallelis, Frank Wolff, Elena Karam, Harry Davis
  • The Arrangement, 1969 (also prod. screenplay from own novel)
    - starring Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, Deborah Kerr, Richard Boone
  • The Visitors, 1972
    - screenplay by Chris Kazan, starring James Woods, Patrick McVey, Patricia Joyce
  • The Last Tycoon, 1976
    - screenplay by Harold Pinter, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, starring Robert de Niro, Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Jeanne Moreau, Jack Nicholson

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