Director and former Drama School student Elia Kazan DRA ’33, ’59 M.A.H. Hon. passed away Sunday at age 94 at his home in New York. A legendary filmmaker, and grandfather of current Yale junior Zoe Kazan ’05, Kazan was one of the century’s greatest directors, particularly renowned for his contributions to acting method.
Born Elia Kazanjoglous on Sept. 9, 1909 in Constantinople, when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire, Kazan was one of four sons of Anatolian Greek immigrants George Kazanjoglous and Athena Sismanoglou. Kazanjoglous emigrated to New York, became a rug merchant and sent for his family before World War I broke out. One of his four surviving children, Nicholas Kazan, Zoe’s father, is also a director (“Matilda,” “Bicentennial Man,” “Enough”).
Zoe said her grandfather met her grandmother, Molly Day Thatcher, who was in the playwriting track, at the Drama School. After two years, the pair dropped out. Yale granted Elia an honorary degree in 1959.
Zoe Kazan said her favorite movie of her grandfather’s was “America, America.” Based on the 1962 bestseller that was Kazan’s first novel, the 1963 movie retraced the odyssey of Kazan’s uncle, a young Greek youth who fled Turkey, reaching America after overcoming numerous obstacles.
Kazan began his career in the theater, bringing Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” to Broadway for the first time, as well as directing Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Kazan also directed hit Broadway plays “The Skin of Our Teeth,” Miller’s “All My Sons,” “J.B.,” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” All of the plays won Pulitzer Prizes for the authors, and “J.B.,” “Sons,” and “Salesman” won Kazan three directing Tonys.
Miller later wrote “The Crucible,” a play on witchhunts in America, which served as a thinly veiled commentary on the 1950s persecution of communists by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan famously not only admitted to membership in the Communist party earlier in his youth but also branded others as Communists, an act which branded him a traitor in the eyes of much of Hollywood.
Besides working with the likes of Steinbeck, Miller, Williams and Wilder, Kazan helped found Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio, the home of “Method” acting, a technique in which an actor recalls emotions and reactions from past experience and uses them in identifying with and individualizing the character being portrayed.
Presented with a lifetime achievement Oscar at the 1999 Academy Awards, Kazan was escorted by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. While audience members refrained from booing, some chose not to applaud and sat while other stood.
Kazan’s films were often the debuts or career-making movies of some of America’s great iconic actors, including Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty and James Dean.
Kazan was nominated for eight Oscars for 1947’s “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which won Best Picture and Best Director. Gregory Peck played a reporter who pretends to be Jewish to do a story on anti-Semitism, the first storyline of its kind in post-World War II America.
In 1951, Kazan turned “Streetcar” into one of the greatest movies of all time, winning four Academy Awards. Though Kazan lost the directing Oscar to John Huston for “The African Queen,” in “Streetcar” he introduced the world to a young thug named Marlon Brando. Kazan would later work with Brando in “On the Waterfront,” “Viva Zapata!,” “Baby Doll” and “A Face in the Crowd.”
The year 1954 brought Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” the boxing film by which all other movies, boxing or otherwise, are judged. For Kazan, it was also the first movie in which his much-criticized stage-blocking style was all but eliminated. Nominated for 12 Oscars, Waterfront won a staggering eight and made Brando a legend in his own time.
In 1955, Kazan brought John Steinbeck’s classic “East of Eden” to the silver screen. Also James Dean’s major motion picture debut, the film was nominated for four Oscars, and won one. Dean’s posthumous Oscar nomination was the first in Academy history.
While controversial, Kazan made a massive contribution to American cinema and revolutionized the way actors prepare themselves for roles.
“What’s interesting to me,” Zoe Kazan said, “is that when a person dies, you can see the shape of their life.”