Elia Kazan, born Elias Kazantzoglou was a director, producer, writer, and actor, described by The New York Times as “one of the most honored and influential directors in Broadway and Hollywood history“.
He was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), to Cappadocian Greek parents. After attending Williams College and then the Yale School of Drama, he acted professionally for eight years, later joining the Group Theatre in 1932, and co-founded the Actors Studio in 1947. With Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford, his actors’ studio introduced “Method Acting” under the direction of Lee Strasberg. Kazan acted in a few films, including City for Conquest (1940).
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, three Tony Awards, and four Golden Globes. He also received an Honorary Oscar.
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 3 wins, including Kazan’s first for Best Director. It was followed by Pinky, one of the first films in mainstream Hollywood to address racial prejudice against black people. In 1954, he directed On the Waterfront, a film about union corruption on the New York harbor waterfront. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), an adaptation of the stage play which he had also directed, received 12 Oscar nominations, winning 4, and was Marlon Brando’s breakthrough role. In 1955, he directed John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, 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 basically the work of playwright Clifford Odets. The two men hat dealt a pact to name each other in front of the committee. 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.” Film author Ian Freer concludes that even “if his achievements are tainted by political controversy, the debt Hollywood—and actors everywhere—owes him is enormous.” In 2010, Martin Scorsese co-directed the documentary film A Letter to Elia as a personal tribute to Kazan.
“I’m an old fashioned Greek.”
Elia Kazan was born in the Fener district of Istanbul on September 7, 1909, to Cappadocian Greek parents originally from Kayseri in Anatolia. He arrived with his parents, George and Athena Kazantzoglou (née Shishmanoglou), to the United States on 8 July 1913. He was named after his paternal grandfather, Elia Kazantzoglou. His maternal grandfather was Isaak Shishmanoglou. Elia’s brother, Avraam, was born in Berlin and later became a psychiatrist.
Kazan was raised in the Greek Orthodox religion and attended Greek Orthodox services every Sunday, where he had to stand for several hours with his father. His mother read the Bible but did not go to church. When Kazan was about eight years old, the family moved to New Rochelle, New York, and his father sent him to a Roman Catholic catechism school because there was no Orthodox church nearby.
As a young boy, he was remembered as being shy, and his college classmates described him as more of a loner. Much of his early life was portrayed in his autobiographical book, America America, which he made into a film in 1963. In it, he describes his family as “alienated” from both their parents’ Greek Orthodox values and from those of mainstream America. His mother’s family were cotton merchants who imported cotton from England and sold it wholesale. His father had become a rug merchant after emigrating to the United States, and expected that his son would go into the same business.
After attending public schools through high school, Kazan enrolled at Williams College in Massachusetts, where he helped pay his way by waiting tables and washing dishes; he still graduated cum laude. He also worked as a bartender at various fraternities, but never joined one. While a student at Williams, he earned the nickname “Gadg,” for Gadget, because, he said, “I was small, compact, and handy to have around.” The nickname was eventually taken up by his stage and film stars.
In America America he tells how, and why, his family left Turkey and moved to America. Kazan notes that much of it came from stories that he heard as a young boy. He says during an interview that “it’s all true: the wealth of the family was put on the back of a donkey, and my uncle, really still a boy, went to Istanbul to gradually bring the family there to escape the oppressive circumstances. It’s also true that he lost the money on the way, and when he got there he swept rugs in a little store.”
Kazan notes some of the controversial aspects of what he put in the film. He writes “I used to say to myself when I was making the film that America was a dream of total freedom in all areas.” To make his point, the character who portrays Kazan’s uncle Avraam kisses the ground when he gets through customs, while the Statue of Liberty and the American flag are in the background. Kazan had considered whether that kind of scene might be too much for American audiences:
“I hesitated about that for a long time. A lot of people, who don’t understand how desperate people can get, advised me to cut it. When I am accused of being excessive by the critics, they’re talking about moments like that. But I wouldn’t take it out for the world. It actually happened. Believe me, if a Turk could get out of Turkey and come here, even now, he would kiss the ground. To oppressed people, America is still a dream.”
Before undertaking the film, Kazan wanted to confirm many of the details about his family’s background. At one point, he sat his parents down and recorded their answers to his questions. He remembers eventually asking his father a “deeper question: ‘Why America? What were you hoping for?'” His mother gave him the answer, however: “A.E. brought us here.” Kazan states that “A.E. was my uncle Avraam Elia, the one who left the Anatolian village with the donkey. At twenty-eight, somehow—this was the wonder—he made his way to New York. He sent home money and in time brought my father over. Father sent for my mother and my baby brother and me when I was four.
Kazan writes of the movie, “It’s my favorite of all the films I’ve made; the first film that was entirely mine.”
Elia Kazan was married three times. His first wife was playwright Molly Day Thacher. They were married from 1932 until her death in 1963; this marriage produced two daughters and two sons, including screenwriter Nicholas Kazan. His second marriage, to the actress Barbara Loden, lasted from 1967 until her death in 1980 and produced one son. His marriage, in 1982, to Frances Rudge continued until his death, in 2003, aged 94.
In 1978, the U.S. government paid for Kazan and his family to travel to Kazan’s birthplace where many of his films were to be shown. During a speech in Athens, he discussed his films and his personal and business life in the U.S., along with the messages he tried to convey:
In my own view, the solution is to talk about human beings and not about abstracts, to reveal the culture and the social moment as it is reflected in the behavior and the lives of individual people. Not to be “correct.” To be total. So I do not believe in any ideology that does not permit—no encourage—the freedom of the individual.
He also offered his opinions about the role of the U.S. as a world model for democracy:
I think you and I, all of us, have some sort of stake in the United States. If it fails, the failure will be that of us all. Of mankind itself. It will cost us all…I think of the United States as a country which is an arena and in that arena there is a drama being played out…I have seen that the struggle is the struggle of free men.
Elia Kazan died from natural causes in his Manhattan apartment, September 28, 2003, aged 94.