Elia Kazan, one of the giants of modern American stage and film who was admired by many for his artistic directing and reviled by others for his testimony during the Hollywood blacklist era, died Sunday. He was 94.
Kazan, who had outlived most of his friends and enemies, died of natural causes at his home in New York City.
Kazan brought a moody and electrifying realism to theater and film that helped define a quintessentially American approach to drama. As critic David Thomson put it, Kazan was “a fascinating 20th century American. Few native directors made films that so persistently dealt with American problems and subjects or were so absorbed in the American regard for sincere intensity of performance.”
After spending time as an actor in the fabled left-wing Group Theater of the 1930s, Kazan emerged as one of the most celebrated figures of 1940s and ‘50s Broadway and Hollywood. He directed the original stage productions of such trailblazing plays as Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which ushered in an era of socially conscious drama and emotional realism in acting. In film, he won two Oscars, for “Gentleman’s Agreement” in 1948 and “On the Waterfront” in 1955, and helped shape the film careers of a variety of acting legends, including Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty and Robert De Niro.
“Elia Kazan was my first teacher in movies, an indispensable mentor for me; inspiring, generous, unpretentious, preeminent in both the legitimate theater and the movies during a chaotic clash of culture and politics in America,” Beatty told The Times on Sunday. “He loved his family, his colleagues, his work and his country. I am blessed to have had him as a friend.”
Richard Schickel, a film historian and critic who is writing a book about Kazan, called him “the most significant player in bringing out a new style of acting in the movies.”
But for all of Kazan’s achievements, he lived the last decades of his life as a man whose artistry had been overshadowed by his politics. Many in Hollywood never forgave Kazan for his performance on April 10, 1952, the day he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), informing on eight of his old friends from the Group Theater, including playwright Clifford Odets and actress Paula Strasberg who, along with Kazan, had once been members of the Communist Party.
The director’s testimony, and his adamant refusal to apologize afterward, provoked a whirlwind of protest on the left that reverberated for the rest of his life. In 1999, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ decision to give Kazan an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement was met by noisy denunciations from aging blacklisted writers as well as younger liberal activists who believed Kazan’s career-saving HUAC testimony had betrayed the socially conscious ideals of many of his own films.
The war of words spread from Hollywood to newspaper op-ed pages across the country. One of Kazan’s most outspoken foes, blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky, set the tone by quipping: “I’ll be watching [the Oscars] hoping someone shoots him. It would no doubt be a thrill in an otherwise dull evening.” Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. defended Kazan, calling the criticism “an orgy of self-righteous frenzy” and saying that “if the occasion calls for apologies, let Mr. Kazan’s denouncers apologize for the aid and comfort they gave to Stalinism.”
Rip Torn, an Emmy Award-winning actor who made his Broadway debut as an understudy to Ben Gazzara in Kazan’s production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” said Kazan was in a tragic, no-win situation. “I’m not excusing what he did, but what happened was a tragedy for Elia and for America,” Torn said at the time of the Oscar controversy. “I’ve always thought of Elia as Galileo -- a man forced to recant by powers bigger than any of us.”
In uncertain health at the time, Kazan gave a brief speech when accepting his Oscar, but made no public response to his detractors. Years earlier, he had justified his actions to playwright Miller by saying, “I’d hated the Communists for many years and I didn’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them.” As for the friends he informed on, he told Miller, “they had already been named or soon would be” by someone else.
But Kazan was always torn by his actions. In the book “Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films,” which compiled a series of interviews he did with writer-director Jeff Young, Kazan said: “Anybody who informs on other people is doing something disturbing and disgusting. It doesn’t sit well on anyone’s conscience.... I knew a lot of guys would turn against me.”
On the other hand, Kazan believed that his best work as an artist came after his testimony. As he told Young: “In some ways, the whole experience made a man out of me from being a guy who was everybody’s darling and always living for people’s approval to a fellow who could stand up on his own. It toughened me up a lot.”
“One of the things I really came to admire about Kazan is after his testimony, he kept a liberal faith,” Schickel said. “All the pictures [after his testimony] continued to take up almost radical themes.”
Shortly after his 1952 testimony, Kazan began work with Williams on a new play, “Camino Real.” A cast member remarked with surprise on how healthy Kazan appeared. “What keeps you looking so young?” the actor wondered. Kazan answered: “My enemies.”
Kazan was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) on Sept. 7, 1909. His father was a Greek rug merchant who wore a fez to work, loved to bet on the ponies and moved the family to New York when Elia was 4.
Kazan’s father called him “good for nothing.” However, Kazan’s mother doted on her son, staying up at night reading him books by Robert Louis Stevenson and Victor Hugo.
At age 17, Kazan went off to Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., where he was a loner, resenting the privileged upbringing of his peers. Rejected by the fraternities, he took a job as a waiter. After graduation, he went to Yale University’s School of Drama, where he studied musical theater and began acting and directing plays.
In 1932, he joined the Group Theater, first as an apprentice in the theater’s work camp, then as an actor and sometime director. The Group Theater provided a formative experience for Kazan, who embraced its left-wing politics and became friends with such emerging theater giants as Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Stella Adler and Odets. It was the height of the Depression and the Group Theater agitated for social change, believing that the misery of millions of out-of-work Americans signaled the collapse of Wall Street capitalism.
When the Group first performed Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty,” a fervent 1935 agitprop drama that became an anthem for Depression-era activism, it was Kazan -- playing a cabdriver -- who took the stage at the play’s end, shaking his fist and leading the audience in a rallying cry of “Strike! Strike!”
In the mid-1930s, Kazan joined the Communist Party, which was popular in many politically active theater circles of the time. He remained a member for two years, quitting the party after becoming disenchanted with its attempts to discourage dissent and free discussion. Still fiercely independent, Kazan remained a political artist. As he wrote in his autobiography, “Elia Kazan: A Life”: In the 1930s, “I continued to think like a Communist. The theater is a weapon. A play must teach a lesson.... I continued to regard the society around me as hostile and repressive, corrupt beyond redemption by peaceful change.”
After the Group Theater dissolved in 1940, Kazan set out on his own. He came to Hollywood, where he made two films at Warner Bros. as an actor -- 1940’s “City for Conquest” and 1941’s “Blues in the Night.” He made his Broadway debut in 1942, directing Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” with Tallulah Bankhead; Fredric March; March’s wife, Florence Eldridge; and a young Montgomery Clift. It was a huge hit. Soon, Kazan had a second hit, “Harriet,” starring Helen Hayes, playing on Broadway at the same time.
“The Skin of Our Teeth” gave Kazan, who until then had worked in a theater collective, his first real exposure to celebrity temperament. During Eldridge’s big speech, Bankhead would upstage her rival by letting her blond hair fall free and regally combing it out onstage. Kazan berated her, but to no avail. Then March took matters into his own hands. When Bankhead had her big scene in the play, March stood just offstage, where the audience could see him, and loudly gargled a glass of water, drowning out her lines. When Bankhead had a scene later where she and March kissed, she retaliated by thrusting her tongue deep into his mouth. Kazan asked March what he did. “I bit it,” he replied.
Wooed by the movies, Kazan returned to Hollywood in 1944 to direct, beginning a fruitful, although often contentious, alliance with producer Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. Of the first six films Kazan directed, all but one were made at Fox. Many of them explored social issues of the time, and they bore the stamp of Zanuck’s crusading liberalism as much as of Kazan’s dramatic intensity. Still, Kazan was viewed as a breath of fresh air in stodgy, tradition-bound Hollywood.
Kazan’s first film, 1945’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” based on Betty Smith’s bestseller about tenement life, won James Dunn a supporting actor Oscar. Juvenile star Peggy Ann Garner received a special Academy Award.
The director made two thrillers -- “Boomerang!” (1947) and “Panic in the Streets” (1950) -- that were filmed in unfamiliar locations, used nonactors and actors and focused on stories that were more psychological than plot-driven. He also made two anti-prejudice films -- “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) and “Pinky” (1949) -- that seem timid and stagy today, although the former film earned Kazan a best director Oscar.
When Kazan felt smothered by Hollywood’s conventionality, he would head back East, where he continued his run as a top Broadway director. In 1947, he directed Williams’ “Streetcar” and Miller’s “All My Sons.” The same year, he co-founded the Actors Studio, whose use of what became known as Method acting made it the era’s most influential breeding ground for gifted young actors.
In 1951, he directed the film version of “Streetcar,” replacing Jessica Tandy, who’d starred in the stage version, with Vivien Leigh, whose scenes with Brando gave the film a raw sensuality that had been missing from the play. He worked with Brando on two other films -- “Viva Zapata!” a drama written by John Steinbeck, and his masterwork, 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” the Budd Schulberg drama about New York dockworkers and labor corruption.
By the time Kazan made “Waterfront,” which went on to win eight Oscars, including best picture, he had been pressured to name names of Communists in the film industry during the HUAC hearings. Many critics have seen parallels between the film, where Brando’s Terry Malloy informs on the mob, and real life, where Kazan informed on his friends. The film’s naked emotions clearly resonated with the director. He later wrote: “When Brando, at the end, yells, ‘I’m glad what I done -- you hear me? -- glad what I done!’ that was me saying with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.”
Karl Malden, a lifelong friend of Kazan who won a supporting actor Oscar for “Streetcar,” received a supporting actor nomination for his role in “Waterfront” and was instrumental in getting Kazan his honorary Oscar in 1999, said he never spoke with Kazan about the director’s testimony. “I’m thankful I didn’t have to go through what Elia did. God knows what I would’ve done,” Malden said in a 1999 interview. “I look at his work, not the politics. If that’s the way he chose to get out of a problem, being alone at a microphone, with congressmen throwing questions at him, who are we to judge?”
In 1955, Kazan followed up his “Waterfront” triumph with two more groundbreaking achievements, directing the Broadway debut of Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the searing film “East of Eden,” which made a star of the young Dean. Kazan went on to have more film successes, including 1956’s “Baby Doll”; 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd,” an early look at media demagoguery; and “Splendor in the Grass,” a 1961 William Inge drama that starred Natalie Wood and the young Beatty. In 1963, his film “America America,” a sprawling drama adapted from a Kazan novel inspired by the life of his uncle, Joe, was nominated for three Oscars, including best director and best picture, and won one for art direction-set decoration.
In 1964, Kazan returned to Broadway, where he directed Miller’s “After the Fall” for the inaugural season of the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center. The production starred Barbara Loden, whom Kazan later married, playing a character loosely based on Miller’s ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe.
Kazan’s romantic entanglements, if one believes his memoirs, were the stuff of legend. He met his first wife, Molly Day Thatcher, in his early theater days. She played a large role in his political development, first as a collaborator in an early 1930s anti-Fascist filmmaking group and later as an influence on Kazan’s conversion to anti-Communism.
Many believe it was Thatcher who wrote Kazan’s unflinching defense of his HUAC testimony, which ran as an ad at the time of the hearings in the New York Times and which prompted so much ill-will from his old political sympathizers.
Kazan and Thatcher were a personal and professional team. When Kazan was in Mexico making “Viva Zapata!” Zanuck sent a volley of telegrams, full of complaints and threats about Kazan having fallen behind schedule. Suddenly, much to Kazan’s relief, they stopped. After filming was completed, Thatcher handed Kazan a stack of yellow paper -- she’d held back the telegrams so he wouldn’t be distracted from his work.
In his memoirs, Kazan bluntly acknowledged that this devotion was largely a one-way street, chronicling a string of his infidelities that led Thatcher to twice start divorce proceedings, only later to call them off. Kazan says he had affairs for years, usually with young actresses, including Monroe. “My womanizing saved my life,” he wrote. “It kept the juices pumping and saved me from drying up, turning to dust and blowing away. The life-in-hazard that I lived kept me curious, interested, eager, searching and in excellent health.”
However, the affairs put a terrible strain on his relationship with Thatcher, with whom he had three children. “I struggled with how to make it all work together without shaming myself,” Kazan recalled in his memoirs. “I failed. But I did not settle for a solution that would have choked me to death.”
Kazan remained married to Thatcher until her death in 1963 from a brain aneurysm. In 1967, he married Loden, who’d also appeared in “Splendor in the Grass.” She and Kazan had a son, Leo, born in 1962 while Kazan was with Thatcher in Stockholm, promoting the release of “Splendor.” Kazan received the news from Loden, who sent him a cable written in prearranged code. Loden died in 1980 after a lengthy battle with cancer. In 1982, Kazan married his third wife, writer Frances Rudge.
Kazan’s final film was “The Last Tycoon,” a 1976 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel, which starred De Niro as studio chief Monroe Stahr.
In later life, Kazan turned to writing, publishing a number of novels, including “Arrangement,” as well as his autobiography. In the latter book, published when he was 79, Kazan said he had left strict instructions in his will forbidding a somber memorial service, saying his dust needed no flattery. Instead, he wanted a party to be thrown, with everyone invited, even his old enemies, “if they’re still alive.” A private service was being planned for just the family.
Kazan saw himself as a scrappy outsider to the very end. In his memoirs, he wrote: “The struggles I’ve known made my achievements taste sweeter. Since talent is so often the scar tissue over a wound, perhaps I had more than most men.... But much of what’s called talent derives from that astonishing foolhardiness that comes with energy. That kind of fervor is an experience we only know in youth: insatiable appetite, spread-eagle curiosity, a mind and heart open to any experience. Later in life we take naps in the afternoon.”
Besides his widow and son, Kazan is survived by a second son, Nicholas, a screenwriter who was nominated for an Oscar for the 1990 film “Reversal of Fortune”; daughters Katie and Judy; and several grandchildren.
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A list of some of the major plays -- on Broadway and other New York stages -- and most prominent films Elia Kazan directed:
“The Skin of Our Teeth” (1942)
“All My Sons” (1947)
“A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947)
“Death of a Salesman” (1949)
“Tea and Sympathy” (1953)
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955)
“The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” (1957)
“Sweet Bird of Youth” (1959)
“After the Fall” (1964)
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945)
“Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947)
“Panic in the Streets” (1950)
“A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)
“Viva Zapata!” (1952)
“Man on a Tightrope” (1953)
“On the Waterfront” (1954)
“East of Eden” (1955)
“A Face in the Crowd” (1957)
“Splendor in the Grass” (1961)
“America America” (1963)
“The Arrangement” (1969)
“The Last Tycoon” (1976)