Elia Kazan born Elias Kazantzoglou (Greek: Ηλίας Καζαντζόγλου) September 7, 1909 – September 28, 2003 was an American film and theatre director, producer, screenwriter and actor, described by The New York Times as “one of the most honored and influential directors in Broadway and Hollywood history”.
Born in Constantinople, to Cappadocian Greek and Armenian parents, his family came to the United States in 1913. After attending Williams College and then the Yale School of Drama, he acted professionally for eight years, later joining the Group Theatre in 1932, and co-founded the Actors Studio in 1947. With Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford, his actors’ studio introduced “Method Acting” under the direction of Lee Strasberg. Kazan acted in a few films, including City for Conquest (1940).
His films were concerned with personal or social issues of special concern to him. Kazan writes, “I don’t move unless I have some empathy with the basic theme.” His first such “issue” film was Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), with Gregory Peck, which dealt with anti-Semitism in America. It received eight Oscar nominations and three wins, including Kazan’s first for Best Director. It was followed by Pinky (1949), one of the first films in mainstream Hollywood to address racial prejudice against African Americans. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), an adaptation of the stage play which he had also directed, received twelve Oscar nominations, winning four, and was Marlon Brando’s breakthrough role. Three years later, he directed Brando again in On the Waterfront, a film about union corruption on the New York harbor waterfront. It also received 12 Oscar nominations, winning eight. In 1955, he directed John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which introduced James Dean to movie audiences.
A turning point in Kazan’s career came with his testimony as a witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 at the time of the Hollywood blacklist, which brought him strong negative reactions from many friends and colleagues. His testimony helped end the careers of former acting colleagues Morris Carnovsky and Art Smith, along with the work of playwright Clifford Odets. Kazan and Odets had made a pact to name each other in front of the committee. Kazan later justified his act by saying he took “only the more tolerable of two alternatives that were either way painful and wrong.” Nearly a half-century later, his anti-Communist testimony continued to cause controversy. When Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1999, dozens of actors chose not to applaud as 250 demonstrators picketed the event.
Kazan influenced the films of the 1950s and 1960s with his provocative, issue-driven subjects. Director Stanley Kubrick called him, “without question, the best director we have in America, capable of performing miracles with the actors he uses.” Film author Ian Freer concludes that even “if his achievements are tainted by political controversy, the debt Hollywood—and actors everywhere—owes him is enormous.” In 2010, Martin Scorsese co-directed the documentary film A Letter to Elia as a personal tribute to Kazan.