Elia Kazan was born into a Greek Orthodox family on Sept. 7, 1909, in an ancient capital of the world, Constantinople, destined to be renamed Istanbul by the Turkish rulers. At age 4, he was part of the family’s emigration to New York City, which remained home for much of the rest of his long, celebrated and sometimes publicly controversial life as a theater and film director.
Mr. Kazan died at 94. One of his principal writing collaborators, Budd Schulberg, who provided Mr. Kazan with the screenplays for “On the Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd,” died a month ago at 95. This longevity permitted them to survive most of the contemporary detractors who resented the success and prestige of “Waterfront,” the major Academy Award winner of 1954. They had plenty of time to reflect on the political conflicts that remain part of the movie’s subtext and legend. Mr. Kazan’s recurrent reflections on his work and struggles culminated in a magnificently ambivalent and edifying 1988 autobiography, “A Life.”
The Kazan career, whose high points made him an unrivaled influence on the American stage and screen from World War II through the early 1960s, is probably secure from effacement by late-arriving and overcompensating detractors. They surfaced as an absurdly scornful and accusative Hollywood faction at the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony. The presentation of an honorary career award to Mr. Kazan, twice an Oscar winner for best direction (“Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Waterfront”) but a frail and somewhat befuddled presence at age 90, inspired a would-be ironic sit-down protest by a segment of the gala audience.
Allegedly, this tony gesture served to remind the world at large that Mr. Kazan had failed to close ranks in a politically correct way half a century earlier. Instead, he elected to be a left-wing apostate by testifying publicly about his Communist Party membership of the middle 1930s to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The “friendly” witness confirmed the names of eight colleagues (all previously known to the committee) who had been party members while active in the Group Theatre, an aspiring collective of performers that spawned the earliest plays of Clifford Odets. As an actor, Mr. Kazan had pivotal roles in two of the breakthrough Odets hits, “Waiting for Lefty” and “Golden Boy.” Despite the early association, not to mention similar status as committee informants, they never collaborated on a movie project.
It was as a confidant and manipulator of actors and dramatists that Elia Kazan made dynamic, durably fascinating contributions to American popular art. Curiously, he directed only one film version of an earlier Broadway success. Thankfully, it was an indispensable choice: Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” transposed to the screen in 1951 with three members of the original cast, notably the young and explosive Marlon Brando.
Initially under contract to Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox, Mr. Kazan promptly repaid the confidence with successful distillations of best-selling novels, expertly reinforced by the studio’s craftsmen: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” released in 1945, and “Gentleman’s Agreement,” the Academy Award-winning picture of 1947. He came to feel that these productions were studio-bound to a fault and welcomed the opportunity to shoot on authentic locations — Stamford, Conn., in the courtroom melodrama “Boomerang” and New Orleans in the chase thriller “Panic in the Streets.” Nevertheless, Mr. Kazan possessed an affinity for the medium from the outset, when operating on soundstages. The performances and physical surroundings of both “Brooklyn” and “Agreement” remain exceptionally vivid and evocative. It was a long time before the sense of immediacy and expectancy that distinguished Kazan movies gave way to slack or inattentive tendencies.
Of the 19 movies he directed, only half a dozen seem expendable, and three of those belong to the decline of his career from 1969 to 1976. Almost every Kazan movie that appeared from 1945 to 1963 commanded attention on some estimable, stirring, eye-catching or rabble-rousing pretext. He kept you on your toes even when he got on your nerves. For example, it was difficult to abide with “East of Eden” without feeling that James Dean’s self-pitying histrionics as Cal Trask had grown a bit extravagant. Or to remain patient about the drift of “A Face in the Crowd” when Andy Griffith’s diabolical rants as Lonesome Rhodes had repeatedly made an ominous impact. All the same, I find them compulsively watchable and intriguing 50 years later.
Mr. Kazan’s naturalistic and turbulent impulses blazed an emphatic trail for such excitable successors as Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese. Self-evident lines of influence can be discerned from “Streetcar” to “The Fugitive Kind” or “A Face in the Crowd” to “Network” in the Lumet career. The new generations of Italian-American mobsters in “Mean Streets” and “GoodFellas” suggested younger and more affluent refinements of the Irish-American hoods in “Waterfront.”
Always alert to carnal provocation, Mr. Kazan seemed to roll out a welcome mat for such phenomena as “Lolita” and Brigitte Bardot while showcasing Carroll Baker as a precocious sex bomb in “Baby Doll.” The movie caught a lot of grief from censors in 1956, but now it makes you wish there had been more film collaborations of a playful kind between Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams.
You could make a persuasive case that the Academy Awards would look sturdier in retrospect if “A Streetcar Named Desire” replaced “An American in Paris” as the best picture of 1951. A less persuasive case might be argued for “East of Eden” over “Marty” in 1955 or “America America” over “Tom Jones” in 1963. During his prime, Elia Kazan was in the running more often than any of his peers, and usually with a candidate that had a startling personality or approach to recommend it.