Who Was Elia Kazan?
After Elia Kazan and his family immigrated to the United States from Turkey, he grew up in New York City and attended Williams College and Yale University. As a theater director, he worked with major writers like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. In Hollywood, he directed award-winning films like A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, both starring Marlon Brando, and East of Eden with James Dean. Over his career, Kazan received three Tony Awards and two Academy Awards for his directorial work. He was often controversial, most of all when he "named names" of Communist Party members in a 1952 government investigation.
Early Life and Education
Elia Kazan was born Elia Kazanjoglous on September 7, 1909, in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey. His parents, George and Athena (née Sismanoglou) Kazanjoglous, were ethnic Greeks living in Turkey. They shortened their last name to "Kazan" in 1913 when the family immigrated to the United States and settled in New York City, where Kazan's father supported the family by working as a rug merchant.
Kazan was educated at public schools in New York City and later in the suburb of New Rochelle, New York. After graduating from New Rochelle High School, he attended Williams College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1930. From 1930 to 1932, he studied drama at Yale University.
Film and Stage Work of the 1930s and '40s
In the mid-1930s, Kazan joined New York's experimental Group Theatre. There, he practiced the "Method" style of acting, which encourages actors to draw on their personal experiences and to express themselves with raw emotion on stage. After the Group Theatre disbanded in 1941, Kazan shifted his career from acting to directing. One of his early directorial projects was the Thornton Wilder play The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942.
Kazan also found success as a film director in Hollywood in the 1940s. His first major movie project was an adaptation of the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1945, which he followed with several films that took on social issues, including 1947's Gentleman's Agreement, an indictment of anti-Semitism, and 1949's Pinky, a drama about interracial marriage.
In 1947, Kazan co-founded the Actors Studio in New York, an organization that would offer training and performance opportunities to following generations of Method actors. Kazan won two Tony Awards (both for best director) in the late '40s—one for Arthur Miller's All My Sons (1947) and another for Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949). He also directed Tennessee Williams's play A Streetcar Named Desire, which made a major star of Marlon Brando in 1947.
Movies and HUAC
A few years later, Kazan went to Hollywood, California, to direct the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Brando again playing the lead role of the crude, virile Stanley Kowalski and Vivien Leigh replacing Jessica Tandy as the aging Southern belle Blanche DuBois. Kazan also directed Brando in Viva Zapata! (1952), a biopic of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.
Kazan's career was interrupted by his interactions with the House Un-American Activities Committee, a federal committee that was investigating Americans' ties to Communism at the time. Under pressure from the HUAC, Kazan confessed his two-year membership in an American cell of the Communist Party when he had been part of the Group Theatre in the '30s. He also named eight fellow Group Theatre members who had joined the party. This cooperation with the HUAC ended many of Kazan's friendships and working relationships.
However, Kazan made a professional comeback in 1954 with On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando as a dockworker and former boxer who confronts the corrupt, mob-run unions of his blue-collar New Jersey neighborhood. Brando and Kazan were both awarded Oscars for their work in this film. The following year, Kazan directed James Dean in East of Eden, an adaptation of a John Steinbeck novel.
On stage, Kazan continued to work with major playwrights, especially Tennessee Williams, whose Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth opened under Kazan's direction in the 1950s.
Later Career and Honors
Kazan had several additional film successes in the early 1960s. One was Wild River, starring Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick; another was Splendor in the Grass, featuring Natalie Wood and then-newcomer Warren Beatty. America, America, a film based on Kazan's own family background, earned him his final Oscar nomination for best director. He directed an acclaimed stage production of Arthur Miller's After the Fall in 1964.
Kazan wrote several novels in the 1960s and '70s, and in 1988, he published a biography titled Elia Kazan: A Life. He was awarded an honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1999. This award created some controversy in Hollywood, where not everyone had forgiven Kazan's cooperation in the '50s with the HUAC.
Kazan died on September 28, 2003, at the age of 94, in New York City. He had been married three times: to playwright Molly Day Thacher (from 1932 until her death in 1963), actress Barbara Loden (from 1967 until her death in 1980) and Frances Rudge (in 1982).
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