In the years spanning 1947-1957, there was no greater Director than Elia Kazan. Known as a bi-coastal director, he enjoyed extraordinary success on Broadway as well as film, guiding some of the greatest plays to fruition, sometimes bringing them to the screen. With an innate understanding of the method acting system, he was the greatest director of actors of his time, still among the greatest directors of all time.
Born in Turkey, his family immigrated to the United States where Kazan fell in with the controversial Group Theatre, watching, learning under Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg. Though he believed in the Method system he broke away from his mentors over the use of Affective memory, believing rather than using their own emotional memory for scenes, they should draw from the text. Challenging his actors to create a past based on what the playwright had given them, he would work with the actor to create some of the greatest performances ever put on stage and the screen.
Onstage he directed the first productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Yet it is for his work on film he is most celebrated, winning two Academy Awards for Best Director, three Best Director Awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1998. He would become one of the most notorious artists of the fifties when he named names of artists he knew to have communist beliefs, co-operating with McCarthy. His actions cost him dear friendships with Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman and Marlon Brando. Though revered as a director he was thought of as a pariah in the entertainment world, yet his legacy of socially aware films is to this day astonishing. Here’s the list of top Elia Kazan movies.
1. On the Waterfront (1954)
The film is without question an American masterpiece, among best acted, directed, edited, shot and written films in movie history. Many believe it was Kazan justifying his naming names, as our hero does within the film in the name of true justice. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a dim-witted, ex prize-fighter who took a dive for the mob and was rewarded with a cushy job on the docks. But when he is unwittingly used in a murder, he lashes back, realizing far more has been taken from him than he was given. Brando is breathtaking as Malloy, a purity in his acting that we had not ever seen before. The famous taxi cab scene with he and Rod Steiger as his brother child is shattering, as long dormant, unspoken truths boil to the surface. Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Eva Marie Saint and Steiger are sublime. Stunning.
2. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
The film was brought to the screen with all but one of its four actors, Jessica Tandy was not a big enough star for Blanche, and despite three years playing the part on a Broadway, she was replaced by Vivien Leigh. It is a tough call to argue, because Leigh, weak and vulnerable, like a wilting flower is brilliant as Blanche. However this is Brando’s film and Kazan knew it. He captured the claustrophobic sense of that small, hot apartment, where there are no secrets to perfection. Brando is electrifying as the brutish Stanley, but Leigh matches him, as do Karl Malden and Kim Hunter. One of the finest American films ever made, a stunning adaptation of a great, landmark of a play. How, can someone tell me did this not win Best Picture, Director and Actor?
3. A Face in the Crowd (1957)
An unexpected masterpiece about the power of television, made when the medium was still fresh, before anyone realized its staggering power over viewers. The 1960 Presidential election made clear just how unique was the strength of television, a young, handsome John F. Kennedy looks like a young god standing beside a swarthy, sweaty Richard Nixon. In this film, a wandering, hard-drinking folk singer portrayed with intense charisma by Andy Griffith is pulled out of jail, thrown in front of a camera and becomes a huge star, a voice of the people for the time. Yet as TV made him so can a live mike ruin him, and we see his meteoric rise and sudden fall from power, a power that could have him headed for The White House. Griffith is superb, never better. Who knew Andy of Mayberry had such a satanic character within him.
4. East of Eden (1955)
To be clear, Kazan filmed about one third of the massive Steinbeck novel, the hook being the exciting new actor James Dean, cast as Cal. Dean was an electrifying personality but undisciplined as an actor, twisting and writhing his way through the film, stealing every scene he was in. Julie Harris and Jo Van Fleet were excellent in the beautiful Color film, but it was Dean who received the best reviews and attention. Sadly he died that fall, never knowing he was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor, never understanding the immense impact he would have on fifties teen angst.
5. Viva Zapata! (1952)
Brando gives a smoldering, fine performance here as Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican peasant, who became a revolutionary, who became president, only to be sickened that he had become the very thing he fought against. It is a powerful story, beautifully acted by Brando and Anthony Quinn as his buffoonish but calling it straight brother. Novelist John Steinbeck wrote the literate, powerful script, and the actors especially Brando rise to the occasion. An outstanding film which earned Branco his second of four consecutive Oscar nominations.
6. America, America (1963)
This deeply personal film was a labor of love for Kazan, casting unknown actors in a picture based on his flight from a Turkey. It has a gritty, realistic feel of a documentary, as though he had plunked cameras down and shot life. One can feel the heartache and necessity of leaving ones homeland for a better life, just as the passion and deep love that went into the film is there is every frame. The acting does not quite work because they have no training, they lack the craft of trained actors, which might have impacted the box office performance of the film. It brought Kazan his final Oscar nomination.
7. The Last Tycoon (1976)
The film is loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel about Hollywood in the thirties. Though Robert DecNiro is miscast as Monroe Starr, based on Irving Thalberg, there is still much in the film to admire. Jack Nicholson steals the film as a union organizer, while De Niro, though he tries never brings real charisma to Stahr, wondering why Kazan did not cast Warren Beatty or even Nicholson as Stahr. An all star cast helps give the film some dramatic heft, but with a muted performance from De Niro, and zero chemistry between the two lovers, the film struggles to leave an impression. Nicholson, does not.
8. Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947)
The most dated of his films, time has not been kind to Kazan’s study of anti-Semitism which at its time was a critically work that won Best Picture and his first Academy Awards for Best Director. Gregory Peck is a journalist who poses as a Jew going undercover to write a story about racism against Jews in America. Obviously he, as we, are startled by what he finds. Within ten years of being released the film looked out of step with the times and today it feels forced and just…off.
Read More: Woody Allen Movies