Elia Kazan is, without a doubt in my mind, my favorite director of all time. He’s one that has influenced my own work in a vast amount of ways. So, let’s put aside for a moment the unfortunate fact that he is one of the few that named names as a witness for the House Committee on Un-American Activities, ending the careers of several people, and solely focus on his films and their genius.
Some quick background about Kazan: he was born in Istanbul from Greek parents in 1909. He attended Williams College and the Yale school of drama. He acted for a while, later moving on to directing. He would successfully pull dramatic performances from his actors, ultimately leading them to Oscar nominations. In fact, he led 21 actors to nomination, with 9 wins. That, my friends, is impressive.
Elia Kazan’s filmography includes some of the greatest films of all time such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On The Waterfront (1954), and East of Eden (1955). Those are some of his best known films. Some other films he directed that, I think at least, should get more praise are Baby Doll (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), and Splendor in the Grass (1961).
I think the themes in his films are important to touch on. Most prominently, you’ll discover, in nearly all of his films is the disintegration of family. This occurs in Streetcar, Waterfront, Eden, Baby Doll, and Splendor. In every single one of those films, you can pinpoint a moment when a family falls apart, or is about to fall apart, or is in the process of falling about. In Streetcar, this occurs between Stella and Blanche, as Blanche slips further into insanity, ultimately led there by Stanley, Stella’s husband. In Waterfront, I feel like I just have to say a name to pinpoint the disintegration and that name is Charley.
In Eden, it’s the relationship between Cal and his father that suffers. In Splendor, it’s Bud’s family that completely falls apart.
Side note: Part of me wants to address the film Baby Doll more in this post. However, it’s one of those films that it is better if you just watch it yourself rather than have me explain anything about it to you. I’ll just say this: it is written by Tennessee Williams and is a black comedy/drama, known as one of the steamiest American-made films. It will make you uncomfortable. It will make you feel uneasy. There is more meaning behind it. Do not take it at face value. Maybe some time, upon a rewatch of it, I’ll write something about it. But, until then, from here on out, I will not be discussing the film.
Another theme present in a majority of Kazan’s films is the animalistic nature of man. The character of Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire is literally the personification of that. Everything he does is animalistic and it is shown that way and even emphasized at times.
If I had to choose one word to really describe the characters in Kazan’s films, it would be anguish. Anguish is defined as “severe mental or physical pain or suffering” and it is literally in every single one of his films. Let’s go down the line, shall we? Streetcar – the character of Blanche is the most prominent as she is suffering mentally the entire film. Waterfront – quite literally the character of Terry Malloy is in physical pain. Splendor – the character of Deanie LITERALLY loses her mind because her boyfriend, Bud, sleeps with another woman so as not to “spoil” Deanie and her whole life crumbles because of it. Now, I’m not a fan of Natalie Wood, who played the character of Deanie, but that shit was heartbreaking.
As with a lot of the directors in the 1950s and 1960s, Kazan has a very particular visual style and, to the trained eye, you can spot it a mile away. A lot of his films had this “50s angst” to them. Lighting was incredibly important. He used it to help tell the story, such as in Splendor in the Grass, where lighting is used to help reveal the true nature of its characters. Kazan also liked to use long shots in his films, as an effort to keep the viewer at a distance. And, he liked to experiment with the camera. Most memorable is the shot of James Dean in East of Eden when he is on the swing. The camera is moving with him.
So, you’ll notice that I didn’t touch much on the film A Face in the Crowd in this post, even though I mentioned it as one that I feel deserved more attention. Now, there is a reason for that. That reason being that I intend to write a blog post completely dedicated to that film. A Face in the Crowd, starring Andy Griffith (weird I know, but just stay with me), is so crazy relevant today that it deserves its own post. So, it will get one. In the meantime, watch the film, if you can. Do it.
Elia Kazan, as a filmmaker, knew what he was doing. He had an insight to the youth of America, especially when it came to how outside influences, such as the economy, war, and the ideals of previous generations, affected the relations between the youth. He liked to create moods in his audience using movie elements. He had a way of using lighting to really emphasize emotions that his characters were feeling, and he had a way of using music to create and emphasize a certain emotion within the viewers of his films. He experimented with camera angles to, not only help to convey the emotions of the character or the emotions of the situation that was occurring, but to help the audience to feel those same emotions, connecting them to the characters. He was brilliant, and every time I rewatch one of his films, I’m reminded of that.
So, this weekend, if you have some time, make it a point to watch a film directed by Elia Kazan. You will not be disappointed.
Who is your favorite director? What is it that they do that makes them your favorite? I’m dying to know. Let’s have a discussion.