Elia Kazan

Controversial film and theatre director

Tuesday 30 September 2003 00:00 BST

Elia Kazanjoglous (Elia Kazan), film and theatre director, producer, actor and writer: born Constantinople 7 September 1909; married 1932 Molly Day Thacher (died 1963; one son, two daughters, and one son deceased), 1967 Barbara Loden (died 1980; one son, one stepson), 1982 Frances Rudge (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died New York 28 September 2003.

In January 1999, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that one of the most brilliant directors of stage and screen was to be given an honorary Oscar. The then-89-year-old Elia Kazan had already won two Academy Awards, many theatre awards, and was co-founder of the influential Actors' Studio. His honorary Oscar was to be a lifetime achievement award - yet that lifetime had been for ever blemished when, on 10 April 1952, Kazan appeared voluntarily before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and named 11 old friends and colleagues as Communists.

Forty-seven years later, a storm of protest surrounded the Academy's announcement. Rod Steiger opposed the award, even though his role in Kazan's On the Waterfront had earned him an Oscar nomination. The film director Jules Dassin, blacklisted during the 1950s, took out an advertisement in The Hollywood Reporter, declaring his opposition. Victor Navasky, Editor of The Nation, disagreed. "Give Kazan the award," he suggested, "but print the names of the people he named on the back of the Oscar."

Born in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1909, Elia Kazanjoglous was four when he and his Anatolian Greek parents emigrated to America. Growing up in New York, he became fascinated with the theatre, and attended Yale University's Drama School. In 1932 he joined the left-wing Group Theater as an actor and assistant stage manager, but with ambitions to become a director. That same year he made his first acting appearance in the play Chrysalis.

The following year he played The Orderly in Sidney Kingsley's medical drama Men in White. Also in the cast were J. Edward Bromberg, Paula Strasberg, Lewis Leverett, Clifford Odets, Tony Kraber, Art Smith, Phoebe Brand and her husband Morris Carnovsky - all of whom Kazan would name as Communists 19 years later.

Throughout the 1930s he and Odets were firm friends, and when Odets turned playwright, scoring a great success with his powerful one-act play Waiting for Lefty (1935), Kazan scored too in the role of an angry cab driver who urged his fellow cabbies to strike, then turned to the audience and made them shout "Strike!" along with him. The Group's co-founder Harold Clurman recalled in his book The Fervent Years (1945):

Elia was thunderously effective. Everyone was sure we had picked him off a taxi to play the part.

Kazan also acted in Odets's plays Paradise Lost (1935), Golden Boy (1937) and Night Music (1940), in which he attracted the attention of Hollywood. In the summer of 1940, he played a likeable gangster in Warner Bros' film City for Conquest. Unexpectedly shot by a fellow mobster, his dying "Aw gee, I never figured on that at all!" was one of the film's most memorable moments.

According to Hollywood legend, Jack L. Warner offered Kazan a long-term acting contract with the studio, but suggested changing his name to Paul Cezanne. When the young actor pointed out that there already was a Paul Cezanne (or at least Cézanne), Warner is said to have replied, "Kid, you make a couple of hit pictures, and they'll forget all about that guy!"

After appearing as a clarinet player in the same studio's Blues in the Night (1941), Kazan made up his mind to concentrate on directing. "I decided that summer that I'd never act again," he wrote in his 1988 autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life, "and I never did."

His first success as a theatre director was Hy Kraft's comedy Café Crown (1942), followed immediately by Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). Other hits were the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash/S.J. Perelman musical One Touch of Venus (1943), and Franz Werfel and S.N. Behrman's Jacobowsky and the Colonel (1944).

When the 20th Century-Fox producer Louis D. Lighton suggested that Kazan direct the screen version of Betty Smith's 1943 best-seller A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the studio's production chief Darryl F. Zanuck replied,

I'm naturally suspicious of deep thinkers in relation to motion pictures. They sometimes think so deep, they miss the point.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) proved Zanuck wrong; the film was directed with great sensitivity, and James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner, who played the alcoholic Johnny Nolan and his adoring daughter Francie, both won Oscars.

Zanuck and Kazan next joined forces on the equally successful Boomerang! (1947), which was based on an actual murder, and filmed in the Connecticut town where it happened. In The Nation, James Agee wrote that Boomerang! boasted "the most immaculate set of naturalistic performances I have seen in one movie". In Gentleman's Agreement (1947), Gregory Peck played a Wasp journalist who pretends to be Jewish in order to write a series of magazine articles about anti-Semitism.

The film won Oscars for Kazan (Best Director) and Celeste Holm (Best Supporting Actress), and was chosen Best Picture, although the blacklisted writer Ring Lardner Jnr summed up its message as "Never be mean to a Jew, because he might turn out to be a gentile". Pinky (1949), Zanuck and Kazan's equally earnest attack on colour prejudice, was another success, but was marred by a copout ending.

Reviewing Tennessee Williams's play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), John Chapman of The New York Daily News described the evening as "one of those unforgettable times when all is right and nothing is wrong". Kazan also directed Williams's plays Camino Real (1953), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). Except for Jessica Tandy, who played Blanche DuBois on Broadway, the entire New York cast of Streetcar recreated their roles in the 1951 film incarnation. The screen Blanche, Vivien Leigh, won an Oscar, as did Kim Hunter, Karl Malden and Kazan himself.

After directing Brando again in Viva Zapata! (1952), Kazan made his notorious appearance before HUAC. He also took out a verbose, self- justifying ad in The New York Times, in which he regretted his 19-month membership in the Communist Party in the early 1930s, and, as in Waiting for Lefty, urged others to follow his example and name names. (In his autobiography, Kazan said that it was his first wife who actually wrote the ad.) Kazan's nickname was "Gadge" - short for "Gadget", suggesting he was handy, dependable, a guy who fixed things. The blacklisted Zero Mostel, who had acted in Kazan's 1950 film Panic in the Streets, gave the director a new nickname after 10 April 1952: "Looselips".

What seemed particularly crass about Kazan's naming Phoebe Brand and Tony Kraber as Communists was that it was he who had recruited them into the Party. In 1955 Kraber was called before HUAC. Asked about his association with Kazan, he replied, "Is this the Kazan who signed the contract for 500,000 dollars the day after he gave names to this committee?" The late Kim Hunter once told me,

I simply couldn't believe it when I heard Gadge had buckled in to the witch-hunters. He was the top director on Broadway, where there was no blacklist - he could have just stayed in New York until that reign of terror was over. It didn't make sense!

In his autobiography, Kazan stated, "The only genuinely good and original films I've made, I made after my testimony." This can hardly be said of the anti-Communist Man on a Tightrope (1953), but in 1954 he collaborated with the writer Budd Schulberg (who had named 15 people in his own appearance before the committee) on a magnificent film that managed to make a hero of an informer. "I'm glad what I done, you hear me? Glad what I done!" shouted the boxer-turned- longshoreman Terry Molloy (Marlon Brando) after his courageous testimony against the corrupt union racketeers who murdered his brother in On the Waterfront (1954). Chosen Best Picture, the film also won Oscars for Kazan and Schulberg, and acting awards for Brando and Eva Marie Saint.

The 1950s were a busy time for Kazan: on Broadway he directed Robert Anderson's hit play Tea and Sympathy (1951) and brought James Dean to screen stardom in East of Eden (1955). By now producing as well as directing, he made Tennessee Williams's Baby Doll (1956), and, with Budd Schulberg again, the powerful, satirical A Face in the Crowd (1957). Reviewing the latter film for the Sunday Times, Dilys Powell wrote:

Almost exactly a year ago, I spent a morning at a studio in the Bronx, watching Elia Kazan rehearsing a scene from A Face in the Crowd. At the time, I was astonished by the density of the invention which Kazan was contributing. Ideas for gesture, tone, look - an enormous richness of detail went to strengthen the comic vitality of the scene. And now that I watch the completed film, once again, it is the density of the picture which strikes me. Nothing is taken for granted.

A Face in the Crowd fared disappointingly at the box office, as did the underrated Wild River (1960). Natalie Wood gave the performance of her career in Splendor in the Grass (1961), which introduced Warren Beatty to the screen.

Kazan's testimony had lost him the friendship of Arthur Miller, whose plays All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949) he had triumphantly directed. The two men were reunited in 1964 when Miller asked him to direct his semi-autobiographical After the Fall. One of the characters in the play, a man who names names to HUAC, was clearly based on the director himself.

In 1967 Kazan began writing The Arrangement, a novel which the blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein described as "the kind of book the guy would have spurned as beneath himself to direct as a film". Yet Kazan did direct and adapt the novel's 1969 film version, writing the script himself. Shortly before the filming began, Marlon Brando wisely abandoned the leading role of a ruthless Greco-American advertising executive. The critic Pauline Kael called the film "a noisy glorification of anguish over selling out".

Earlier, Kazan had directed America, America (1963). Based on the experiences of his uncle, this nostalgic, three-hour saga of a young Greek emigrating from Turkey to the United States was a financial disaster.

In 1972 he directed the low- budget The Victims, which was shot in 16-millimetre and blown up for its very limited theatrical release. The screenplay was by his elder son, Chris, and one critic dubbed the film Son of On the Waterfront; this time the noble informer was a Vietnam veteran who testified against two former army friends who had raped and murdered a Vietnamese girl.

"Scott Fitzgerald's last, unfinished novel here lies in ruins," was the film critic David Shipman's assessment of Kazan's final film, The Last Tycoon (1976). The New Yorker found it "so enervated it's like a vampire movie after the vampires have left". In 1974 Francis Ford Coppola invited Kazan to appear in The Godfather, Part II as Gazzo, the Mafia lieutenant who initially agrees to inform on his comrades before a Senate investigating committee. Kazan refused the role.

On Oscar Night 1999, more than 500 demonstrators gathered outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to protest at the evening's honorary award, and Kazan's reception inside the pavilion was far from the traditional standing ovation accorded to other Lifetime Achievement recipients. Although blacklisted herself for 16 years, Kim Hunter felt the award was justified.

"Gadge deserved that Oscar, despite his testimony," she said. "Everybody did what they had to do in that crazy, evil period."

Dick Vosburgh

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