This is Elia Kazan. He was one of America’s greatest film directors.
He started his professional life as an actor, working in theatre for eight years. In 1932, he joined the Group Theatre, where he met Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler – the principle architects of the American version of the Stanislavski discipline of acting.
In 1947, along with Strasberg, Kazan co-founded the Actors Studio.
Elia Kazan in front of the Actors Studio in New York City circa 1950s
This was to become America’s premier acting school developing a variation on Stanislavsky’s ‘method’, a highly naturalistic style of self-expression in performance. Many of America’s greatest actors, past and present, have passed through its doors.
Paul Newman in class at the Actors Studio in the 1950s
And Marilyn Monroe around the same time
Kazan had a passion for exposing the social and personal issues that concerned him. His first film of note in this area was Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) starring Gregory Peck. It dealt head on with the subtle anti-Semitism in America at the time and received three Oscars, including Best Director. Later came A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952) and On the Waterfront (1954), all starring Marlon Brando, a method actor Kazan had nurtured along with the young James Dean, who he directed in East of Eden (1955). He later directed Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass (1961).
Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire 1951
Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata! 1952
Patricia Neal and Andy Griffith in A Face in The Crowd 1957
James Dean and Julie Harris in East of Eden 1955
Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in Splendor in The Grass 1961
He was very much an actor’s director, drawing out astonishing performances, 21 of which led to Oscar nominations and 9 wins. In his own life, Kazan received two best director Oscars for Gentleman’s Agreement and On the Waterfront.
Gregory Peck in Gentleman’s Agreement 1947
Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando in On The Water Front 1954
But not all revered Kazan. He was heavily criticised for testifying before the Congressional Committee in 1952. Nicknamed ‘the witch hunt’, it was headed up by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Kazan ‘named names’ of people and friends who might have little or no connection to the Communist Party, the dreaded enemy of the United States. Among the people he named were Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett and Clifford Odets. Many were blacklisted, destroying their careers and ruining their lives. In 1999, when Kazan received a lifetime achievement Oscar from the Academy, many of the audience protested and others refused to clap him on the night.
Kazan reciving his Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1999
But, for all that, he has left a magnificent body of films well worth watching.
James Dunn in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 1943
Do look at his earlier A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), which verges on sentimental but is a delightful film with a wonderful performance from James Dunn, for which he won an Oscar.
Peggy Ann Garner in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Haliee Sinfield in the Coen Brothers True Grit 2010, looking remarkably similar to Garner above