The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Death of a gritty genius and whistle-blower

New York, Sept. 29 (Reuters): Stage and film director Elia Kazan, who died in New York yesterday aged 94, made film classics On the Waterfront, East of Eden and A Streetcar Named Desire filled with gritty tales of social realism.

But Kazan’s achievements were later overshadowed by accusations he betrayed the acting community by cooperating with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s anti-communist committee. His action outraged many friends, notably playwright Arthur Miller, and they never forgave him. In 1999, Kazan received a special Academy Award for his life’s work, but it reopened the controversy. Some in the audience on awards night withheld their applause while others did warmly acknowledge the honour.

Kazan was considered a genius in the post-World War II years when the Hollywood establishment turned to gimmickry and glamour to stem the fall in box-office receipts caused by television. He won audiences by making people think and feel.

He and Lee Strasberg pioneered the “method” school of acting, which Kazan once defined as “turning psychology into behaviour” to train actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean. Brando, Dean, Vivien Leigh and Eva Marie Saint gave what many consider their finest performances in his films.

Twenty-one of his actors were nominated for Academy Awards, with nine going on to win the Oscar.

Born Elia Kazanjoglous to a Greek family in Constantinople (now Istanbul) on September 7, 1909, Kazan was four when his father decided to move his carpet business to the US. Kazan grew up in the Harlem neighbourhood of Manhattan.

Shunning his father’s profession, he developed an early interest in theatre and in the 1930s was active in various theatre companies dedicated to producing a new socially conscious American drama.

Kazan was a member of the Communist Party of America in the 1930s, but became disillusioned at a meeting in 1935 when a union organiser branded him a dangerous liberal. He resigned from the party, and 17 years later had few qualms in “naming names” of fellow communists from that period to the UnAmerican Activities Committee led by McCarthy.

In the 1940s, Kazan shot to fame along with the playwrights whose work he first directed on Broadway such as Miller, Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams.

A short, wiry man, Kazan was known for his fiery temper, but it was a trait which actors respected and thrived on.

One critic said of Death of a Salesman: “Author Arthur Miller and director Elia Kazan have collaborated on as exciting and devastating a theatrical blast as the nerves of modern playgoers can stand.”

His film breakthrough came with Boomerang in 1947. Influenced by Italian neo-realism and the need to create something distinctive to compete with America’s burgeoning television industry, Kazan shot the murder story entirely on location using previously unknown actors.

Kazan’s film version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire shot Brando to fame.

The actor whom Kazan called “the only genius I’ve met in the field of acting” followed it up with the lead in what is probably Kazan’s best-known film, On The Waterfront.

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