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On the Waterfront

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Elia Kazan (1909–2003) was born as Elia Kazanjioglou to Greek parents in Constantinople, which today is Istanbul, Turkey. When he was four years old, his family emigrated to New York City during the early-twentieth-century wave of immigration. Kazan’s father, George, a rug merchant, expected him to inherit the family business. Kazan’s mother, Athena, however, encouraged Kazan’s independence and education in New York’s public schools. After graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts, he went on to study drama at Yale. Fascinated by acting and directing, Kazan joined New York’s influential leftist Group Theater in the 1930s. Many great actors, writers, and directors passed through this group, including Lee Strasberg and Clifford Odets. Acting on his political radicalism, Kazan officially joined a communist cell in 1934. He left the cell in 1936, disillusioned by its hypocrisies. Immersing himself in New York’s theatrical stage scene on and around Broadway, Kazan became a skilled director noted for his ability to draw the best performances from his actors. In 1947, with colleagues Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis, Kazan co-founded the Actors Studio, a collective of innovative performers that would become one of the most important resources for film and theater talent in both mediums’ histories.

The experimental methods the actors studied at Kazan’s Actors Studio followed the teachings of Russian dramatist Konstantin Stanislavski, which Strasberg applied in the United States. Stanislavski’s influential book, An Actor Prepares, was translated into English in 1936, forever changing the course of stage and screen acting. The style of acting based on his teachings became known as the Method, and its practitioners Method actors. A Method actor did not use the emoting techniques common at the time, which consisted of loud, stiff, stagy movements intended to clarify emotions and intentions for the audience. Rather, a Method actor strove to be himself and stay in the moment, responding or reacting as he would in private life. Smaller gestures, mannerisms, pauses, and hesitancies became more important than broad and clear external motions. Actors were encouraged to draw on their own selves and lives. Past memories, life experiences, pains, and pleasures were to be called up from the actors’ subconscious and incorporated into their characters’ psyches. In this way, characters took on depth and transcended one-sided labels such as “villain” or “damsel-in-distress.” They became breathing, complex individuals with contradictory emotions and interior lives that complicated exterior expressions. Three early Method actors were Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift. The fact that many of these acting philosophies are standard today remains a testament to the revolutionary power of the teachings at Kazan’s Actors Studio.

Kazan directed his first stage play in 1935 and became one of Broadway's brightest lights. He was acclaimed especially for his powerful and realistic direction of the plays of Tennessee Williams, such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Arthur Miller, such as Death of a Salesman (1948).

Although Kazan directed plays and films and write novels throughout his long and fruitful life, he did most of his work from the mid-1940s until the mid-1950s, one of the most controversial eras in film history. He worked with famous playwrights, including Miller and Williams, and with notable authors, such as John Steinbeck. He directed films for producer Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox, helping that studio cement its reputation. In the postwar decade, Kazan directed ten motion pictures, all critically acclaimed. Some of the most influential include A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), his first film made under a nine-year contract signed with 20th Century Fox; Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), for which Kazan earned his first Best Director award; A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), adapted by Tennessee Williams from his own play; Viva Zapata! (1952), written by John Steinbeck; and East of Eden (1955), adapted from Steinbeck’s novel.

Kazan made On the Waterfront in 1954 for Columbia Pictures. Although critics now almost universally regard On the Waterfront as a masterpiece of Method acting and a reflection of issues central to its time, when the film first came out a few critics were less sure. The critics agreed that the film had tremendous power, but many were leery of the new acting style and undecided about the effectiveness of Brando’s slouchy inarticulateness. On the Waterfront was based on a series of investigative pieces published in 1949 by New York City journalist Malcolm Johnson, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Over time, though, the strength of the acting prevailed, and the personal struggle that each character undergoes within his or her own soul stuck with viewers and reviewers, who returned to the film time and time again. The film was a critical and financial success, earning more than $10 million on a $1 million budget. This success allowed Kazan to form his own production company, Newtown Productions, through which he would make his next three films.

The politics of this era, however, forever altered Kazan’s life. Following World War II, at the start of the cold war, many Americans feared an infiltration of Soviet Communism. In 1947, the controversial House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed with the intention of purging the United States of any Communist influence. Hollywood’s high profile and liberal makeup made it a prime target. HUAC subpoenaed many actors, screenwriters, and directors to coerce them into informing on their colleagues by “naming names”—that is, making public which of their friends now had, or formerly had, any associations with the Communist Party. HUAC subpoenaed Kazan once, and at his initial hearing he refused to divulge details. At a second hearing in 1952, however, Kazan chose to give the names of seven former colleagues from his Group Theater days. Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter of On the Waterfront, also cooperated with the committee.

Kazan justified his actions by saying that supporting anti-Communist efforts would protect his liberal beliefs and his country. His justifications, however, met with much criticism, particularly from two American writers, Lillian Hellman and his good friend Arthur Miller, who believed naming names was a betrayal of fellow artists. On the Waterfront celebrates as a hero a man who informed on mob leaders, and many people believe that Kazan made the film as a response to Hellman, Miller, and other critics. Miller’s play The Crucible, whose hero dies rather than accuse people of being witches, of course represents the opposing view.

In 1999, when Hollywood presented Kazan with an honorary Oscar for a long and distinguished career, the film industry was bitterly divided. Some protested or refused to stand when Kazan accepted the award, believing still that his actions were calculated to save his own career and fatally damaged the careers of many Hollywood screenwriters who subsequently were blacklisted. Others—including Miller—believed that his cinematic achievements, which include many undoubted masterpieces, should stand on their own.

Kazan died in 2003 at the age of ninety-four.

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