Elia Kazan gained a reputation for being an actor's director over the course of a stunningly successful career, both on Broadway and in Hollywood. His work won him three Tony awards and two Oscars—and his skill benefited actors (indeed, those who worked with him in films alone garnered 21 Best Actor nominations and 9 Oscars for Best Actor). But in spite of his justifiable renown for being the guiding hand behind some of the most powerful dramas of stage and screen of the 1940s and 1950s, he never escaped the stigma that followed him after he agreed to testify in 1952 to the House Committee on Un-American Affairs (HUAC) and “named names” of friends and colleagues whom he claimed were communist sympathizers.
Born in Constantinople, Turkey in 1909 to Greek parents, Kazan moved with his family to the United States when he was four, and grew up in the suburbs outside New York City. His personal story is an example of American immigrant drive, determination, and success: son of a rug merchant, he went to public school, then to college, receiving his BA at Williams College, where he became interested in drama, and then moved on to Yale Drama School. He never fully lost his sense of being an outsider at Yale. And while what he learned there deepened his understanding of how a director, as Kazan put it in his memoir, performs an “overall task”, he found the model of theater the school taught to be polite and sterile, and he balked at it.
He landed his first professional position not as a director but as an actor in the company of the far from sterile or polite Group Theater in 1933. Recently founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg, the Group was a leftist modern theater collective that emphasized ensemble acting and a cooperative approach to developing theater works. They integrated in their practices acting techniques derived from the theories of Russian theater master Constantine Stanislavsky, techniques Strasberg dubbed “the Method,” a way in which actors created authentic performances by remembering personal moments of intense feeling. Even though it was as an actor that Kazan earned a major critical success, his experience performing for the Group is significant mostly for two reasons: it later served his ability to direct a rising generation of Method actors, including Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Lee J. Cobb, and James Dean, on stage and screen; and it provided him left-wing (some have said even Stalinist) political affiliations that later he “named” to HUAC. Although the Group Theater disbanded in 1942, Kazan along with Strasberg and other Group alumni established in 1948 the Actors Studio, a school of Method acting in New York City that serves to this day as a training ground for American actors in Group techniques.
Kazan received the New York Drama Critics Award for directing Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), and from that point he began the legendary period during which he directed a series of extraordinary plays that defined American drama of the mid-twentieth century. His collaboration with Tennessee Williams resulted in four seminal Broadway productions, including Williams's Pulitzer Prize–winning plays A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). His direction of Arthur Miller's All My Sons (1947) and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Death of a Salesman (1949) cemented his reputation as a director of deeply American-themed works that called for outsized raw emotionality in performance.
A man of exceeding ambition, Kazan launched a successful film career even while he was America's foremost theater director. His first major film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), a melodrama about an Irish family and their alcoholic father, began what seemed to be a penchant to direct “social problem” pictures. Gentleman's Agreement (1947), for which he won his first Oscar, dealt with anti-Semitism; Pinky (1949) with miscegenation; Panic in the Streets (1950), a noirish thriller, with disease control. But it was the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, the only one of his stage works Kazan directed for the screen, that established Marlon Brando as the most compelling film actor of his generation, and Kazan as the master director of the Method in cinema. Kazan's films from then on were marked by powerful star performances, most notably On the Waterfront (1954) (another Best Director Oscar) in which Brando was a conscience-stricken former prizefighter turned mob informer; and East of Eden (1955), an adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel, in which James Dean captured the angst of misunderstood adolescence caught in archetypal Oedipal conflict.
Kazan struggled with his decision to provide names to HUAC, but once he testified—naming, among others, former Group colleagues Clifford Odets, John Garfield, and Lee Strasberg—he maintained he was glad he had done it, a position he modified later in life. The decision seems even today to affect readings of his work: On the Waterfront has been seen as a treatise defending the morality of informing; America, America (1963), a semiautobiographical film about Kazan's family emigrating from Greece, proclaims his deep roots in a particularly American story of identity and self-denial. After his testimony, he had no trouble getting work, but many of the writers and actors and directors who had refused to testify were blacklisted, and had trouble getting jobs for the rest of their lives. So deep was the rift in the Hollywood creative community that almost 50 years after his Congressional testimony, when Kazan was awarded a special Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1999, his appearance at the Academy Awards ceremony prompted a flurry of protestations and denunciations.
In the 1960s Kazan turned the majority of his creative attention to becoming a best-selling novelist; he succeeded, though with limited critical success. He died, in 2003, at the age of 94.
See also: East of Eden On the Waterfront Splendor in the Grass Streetcar Named Desire, A
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