By Jack Garner
Gannett News Service
Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty. Those artists - and several others - came to dominate the film and theater of mid-20th century America - in large part because of the vision of Elia Kazan.
The 94-year-old Kazan died Sunday at his Manhattan home. He was arguably the most original and influential filmmaker and theater director of the 1950s. Kazan presented audiences with a shockingly new way to look at the world. His blend of a gritty and combative realism with a surprising, poetic lyricism was unlike anything heretofore seen on a movie screen or a stage.
Miller's Death of a Salesman and Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, the era's two greatest plays, were both directed by Kazan. But his passionate, uncompromising film work was even more influential, including the adaptation of Streetcar and On the Waterfront.
His earlier films were replete with a social fire first struck in left-wing organizations and theater groups of his youth. Gentlemen's Agreement, for example, examined anti-Semitism in America, while Pinky portrayed a black person trying to pass for white in a racist society.
Kazan tussled frequently with studios and censors because he insisted on presenting a daring, mature approach to human relations, behavior, language and sexuality. But Kazan's work with actors may be his greatest legacy.
As a founder of the Actors Studio and a proponent of the Method approach to acting, Kazan used his films to launch the careers of several influential Method performers, including Dean, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Kim Hunter, a very young Beatty and especially Brando.
It's unlikely any actor before or since has electrified, and divided, audiences as much as Brando did in both the stage and film versions of A Streetcar Named Desire and even more so as dockworker Terry Malloy in Waterfront. Though Brando's acting under Kazan was dismissed by traditionalists as mumbling, others saw it as affecting realism. Clearly, Kazan and Brando were right, because the Method has become the dominate film acting style in the decades since Brando's "I coulda been a contender" speech in Waterfront.
Despite Kazan's obvious importance, his life had long been shadowed by his behavior in the redbaiting days of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan did name names before the committee in 1952 - and had been ostracized by many in the arts since.
But I'm here to praise a great artist's talent and influence. No matter the personal flaws, I adhere to the words that Miller put in the mouth of Willy Loman's widow in Death of a Salesman.
"Attention must finally be paid to such a man."
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