Known for his creative stage direction, Elia Kazan was born Elias Kazantzoglou on September 7, 1909 in Constantinople, Ottoman Empire (now Istanbul, Turkey). Noted for drawing out the best dramatic performances from his actors, he directed 21 actors to Oscar nominations, resulting in nine wins. He directed a string of successful films, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), and East of Eden (1955). During his career, he won two Oscars as Best Director and received an Honorary Oscar, won three Tony Awards, and four Golden Globe Awards.
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 8 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 black people. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), an adaptation of the stage play which he had also directed, received 12 Oscar nominations, winning four, and was Marlon Brando’s breakthrough role. In 1954, he directed On the Waterfront (1954), a film about union corruption on the New York harbor waterfront. In 1955, he directed John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1955), 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 liberal friends and colleagues. His testimony helped end the careers of former acting colleagues Morris Carnovsky and Art Smith, along with ending the work of playwright Clifford Odets. 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, and capable of performing miracles with the actors he uses.” On September 28, 2003, Elia Kazan died at age 94 of natural causes at his apartment in Manhattan, New York City. Martin Scorsese co-directed the documentary film A Letter to Elia (2010) as a personal tribute to Kazan.
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