Elia Kazan, (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 to Greek parents. After his family moved to the US he attended Williams College and then the Yale School of Drama and he acted professionally for eight years. He joined the Group Theatre in 1932, and co-founded the Actors Studio in 1947. His actors’ studio introduced “Method Acting”.
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.
Most of his films revolved around personal or social issues of special concern to him. Kazan himself wrote, “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.
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. 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.”
Is Elias Kazan Greek?
Elia Kazan was born in the Fener district of Constantinople on September 7, 1909, to Greek parents George and Athena Kazantzoglou (née Shishmanoglou) originally from Kayseri in Anatolia. The Kazans immigrated to the US on July 8, 1913 when young Elia was only 4 years old. As it is the tradition of Greeks, Elia was named after his paternal grandfather, Elia Kazantzoglou. His maternal grandfather was Isaak Shishmanoglou. Elia has a brother, Avraam, who was a psychiatrist.
Kazan was raised in the Greek Orthodox religion and attended Greek Orthodox services every Sunday with his father, where he had to stand for several hours.
The autobiographical book, America America, which he made into a film in 1963, describes much of his early life. In it, he discusees how his family became “alienated” from both their parents’ Greek Orthodox values and from those of mainstream America. His mother’s family were wholesale cotton merchants and his father had become a rug merchant after emigrating to the United States, and expected that his son would go into the same business.
While a student, 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.