Saturday, February 27, 2010

Elia Kazan

"A film director has to get a shot, no matter what he does. We're desperate people."

-Elia Kazan.

That sense of desperation and struggle is a strong and on-going theme in the classic films of Elia Kazan's ouevre. From On the Waterfront to A Streetcar Named Desire to East of Eden and A Face in The Crowd, Kazan's films were driven by strife and characters acting and reacting in a state of desperation. Kazan himself said it best, "I was an outsider . . . but I was always sympathetic with people that were struggling to get up, because I struggled to get up."

Elia Kazan was born Elias Kazanjoglou to a Greek family living in Turkey on September 7, 1909. In 1913 his family immigrated to New York were his father George established his own rug business. Kazan would attend a variety of public schools in New York City and New Rochelle, New York, eventually studying drama at Yale University's School of Drama. It was in the 1930's that Elia Kazan became a member of two groups that would define the rest of his life. First, and most importantly, Kazan became a member of New York's Group Theatre where he would act alongside the likes of, Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odetts, and Stella and Luther Adler. Although, there was no way of knowing it at the time, Kazan's nineteen month involvement with the Communist Party from 1934-1936, would also have an enormous impact on his life later down the down.

By the early 1940's Kazan was one of the most prominent members of New York's theater community after having directed such plays as, The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) and One Touch Venus (1944). Kazan would have his most success near the end of the 1940's into the 1950's when he would gone on to direct, two Arthur Miller penned plays, All My Sons (1947) and Death of A Salesman (1949) and two Tennessee Williams plays, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955).

It was also during this period that Elia Kazan would make his mark in Hollywood. In 1947 Kazan won the Academy Award for Best Director for the film Gentleman's Agreement. In 1951 he introduced the film going public to Marlon Brando in his highly regarded performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. He and Brando worked togther again in 1954's On The Waterfront which earned both Kazan and Brando Oscars. In 1955 Kazan would yet again introduce the public to another icon when he cast James Dean in his first lead role. He played Cal Trask in what would be the first of three films he starred in before his death at the age of twenty-four.

1952 would prove to be a difficult and ultimately life altering year for Elia Kazan. After first refusing requests to testify to the House Un-American Activities Comitte (HUAC), which was headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, Kazan aquiesced, and appeared before the comittee to discuss his past involvement with the Communist Party. During his testimony, Kazan named eight other past or present members of the Communist Party that he knew. It would later be revealed that all eight of the people he mentioned were already suspected fo having Communist sympathies by HUAC. Because of his cooperation with HUAC, Kazan earned many enemies in Hollywood, and when the Academy elected to honor Kazan with an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, many celebrities and former blacklisted people in the business expressed a great outrage.

Despite the backlash, Kazan would continue to direct both films and theater until his retirement in 1976. During his career he would earn three Academy Awards, five Tony Awards, and countless other festival and critics awards. On September 28, 2003 Kazan died in New York at the age of 94.

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