This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Elia Kazan, who presided over a revolution in American acting and directed films that won 20 Academy Awards, died Saturday at 94. His films included such towering achievements as "A Streetcar Named Desire," "On the Waterfront" (1954), "A Face in the Crowd" and "East of Eden," but when the Academy gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, as many as half the audience members refused to applaud--because he "named names" during the Congressional witchhunt of the early 1950s.
Kazan was a Communist Party member for two years in the mid-1930s. In the McCarthy era, the House Un-American Activities Committee held widely-publicized hearings, asking Hollywood figures to name others they knew to be communists. When Kazan cooperated, he was shunned and scorned by many of his colleagues for the rest of his life.
Kazan was adamant that he had done the right thing. In his autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life (1988), he said he had come to hate the party, which "should be driven...into the light of scrutiny." His action was taken, he said, "out of my own true self." Those who refused to testify said the hearings were show trials, like those conducted by Stalin. They pointed out that Communist party membership was legal. A year after testifying, Kazan directed his greatest film, "On the Waterfront," in which his hero Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) names names before a panel; investigating labor practices.
The movie was written by Budd Schulberg, a writer who also named former communists, and the movie was seen by many as a response to their critics. Kazan said it wasn't. Whether it was or not, it is considered one of the greatest of all American films, was nominated for 11 Oscars and won seven, including best picture, director, actor, actress, screenplay and cinematography.
Mr. Kazan began as an actor, with the influential Group Theater in New York. He began directing, and his breakthrough was "The Skin of Our Teeth" (1942), which starred Tallulah Bankhead. He was on Broadway at a time of enormous change in the American theater, and helped guide it with his direction of plays by the two ranking giants among playwrights, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. At the same time, in 1947, he was a co-founder of the Actors' Studio, the most creative force in modern American acting, and by casting the young Marlon Brando in first the stage and then the screen version of Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," he launched the most influential modern actor. Mr. Kazan and Brando brought a rawness, urgency and emotional intensity to acting that in many ways has touched all American movie acting ever since.
Kazan's first major film was "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1945), based on the Betty Smith novel about a family that survives poverty and alcoholism. Always interested in social issues, he made "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), about anti-Semitism in American business; "Pinky" (1949), about a light-skinned black woman who is tempted to pass for white; "Panic in the Streets" (1950), a thriller about a search for a plague-carrier; "Viva Zapata!" (1952), again starring Brando, as the Mexican revolutionary; "Man on a Tightrope" (1953), an object lesson about the perils of Communism in Europe; "East of Eden" (1955), based on the Steinbeck novel, which gave James Dean his first major role; the hotly controversial "Baby Doll" (1956), starring Carroll Baker in a performance considered daring at the time; and "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), with its famous Andy Griffith performance as a singing ex-con who becomes a demagogue.
Kazan continued to discover important young actors in the 1960s, giving Warren Beatty his first major role in "Splendor in the Grass" in 1961), and introducing the teenager Theresa Russell in "The Last Tycoon" (1976). His "America, America" (1963) was based on the life of his uncle, who like other members of Kazan's family left Greece for America.
As film directing jobs became harder to find, Kazan devoted more time to his writing, and displayed a considerable gift. His A Life is one of the best of all Hollywood autobiographies, notable for its honesty and frankness. For example, here he is telling the story of how he happened to cast the unknown Theresa Russell in "The Last Tycoon": "Sam [Spiegel, the producer] suggested her. I had strong reservations, saw some values but more drawbacks. It was obvious to me, and later conversations with Theresa verified this, that Sam had, for a long time, tried to gentle her into his bed. I saw this without prejudice, because the truth is that most men of imagination and passion in the arts tend to use their power over young women--and young men--to this end. It's life-loving and it's inevitable. Sam, according to Miss Russell, had pursued her for many months unsuccessfully, and apparently he'd not given up. When I worked with her, as he requested, I liked her too, and came to believe she was certainly the best of a poor field and would bring something unanticipated to the role."
He is equally frank about Brando, Beatty and the other major players in his life, and his discussion of his decision to name names, while many might disagree, doesn't avoid the issue of cloak it in banalities, but engages it. His decision made him a pariah, he writes, but the more he saw of communism the more comfortable he was with what he had done.
Many never forgave him. Two years before his honor at the Academy Awards, the American Film institute refused to give him one of their tributes. It took the backstage work of the director Martin Scorsese to convince the Academy that an award was deserved and timely, and Scorsese and actors Robert De Niro introduced him that night in 1999. Thanking them,. he said, "Now I can slip away."
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