The Films of Elia Kazan

Three Masterworks.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” (A+),

The greatest play-to-movie adaptation of all time with two of the greatest performances in the history of cinema courtesy of Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando.

“Splendor in the Grass”(A+).

A perfect staging of a great original screenplay by William Inge boasts a magnificent performance from Natalie Wood.

“On the Waterfront” (A)

Based on an original script by Budd Schulberg, “Waterfront” marked Kazan’s third and last collaboration with Brando. Despite being an apologia for its director and screenwriter’s dealings with the HUAC, it still holds up as a classic today.

Can You Separate the Artist from the Art?

More than any artist in the history of Hollywood, because of his naming names at the HUAC, what you think of Elia Kazan’s body of work depends on whether you can separate the artist from the art. The lives and livelihoods that were destroyed because of his testimony (including his own Best Supporting Actress Kim Hunter) weigh on the conscience of many film lovers who, on principle, will not watch his films.

I am very much against this course of action. Some of the world’s greatest pieces of art were created by some despicable people. Which is why I always list Kazan as one of my all-time favorites. Only in “On the Waterfront” does Kazan the master director and Kazan the HUAC stoolie come together. The film’s storyline is an obvious parallel to Kazan’s (and Schulberg’s, another informer at HUAC), with Brando’s Terry Malloy turning informer being presented as the correct moral choice.

On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan)

The Honorary Oscar.

Kazan got an honorary Oscar on March 22, 1999. Karl Malden, the outgoing Academy President, pressed for this even though Kazan had already won two Oscars for “Waterfront” and “Gentleman’s Agreement“. Would I have given him a standing ovation like most of the audience, or, would I have remained seated like Spielberg, Nolte, Ed Harris, and Amy Madigan? I don’t know!

Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan)

Kazan vs Lumet.

Unlike Sidney Lumet, Kazan’s body of work is much tighter: nineteen films in total compared to Lumet’s 43. They are almost all worth watching with only 2 – as opposed to 24 – outright duds: MGM’s 1947 Tracy/Hepburn’s “The Sea of Grass” and 1972’s “The Visitors”.

Kazan at 20th Century Fox.

Kazan was under contract to 20th Century Fox in the Forties where his output was a mixed bag. He was saddled, on the one hand, with Zanuck’s corny “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Pinky” (Peck’s character was not Jewish, and the mixed-race Pinky was played by Jeanne Crain). However, his Fox days also gave us the great “Boomerang” and “Panic in the Streets”. After 1952’s corny “Viva Zapata” he was his own boss, and he had an incredible decade-long run of great movies.

“The Last Tycoon”.

His last movie was in 1976, an adaptation by Harold Pinter of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel “The Last Tycoon”. It was not an outright failure, as some of the reviews of the time would have it. Yes, Ingrid Boulting’s debut was one of the greatest bombs in history, but Robert De Niro and a very charming Theresa Russell (also making her debut) make the movie worth watching.

1945A Tree Grows in Brooklyn20th Century FoxB-
1947The Sea of GrassMetro-Goldwyn-MayerD-
1947Boomerang!20th Century FoxB+
1947Gentleman’s Agreement20th Century FoxC-
1949Pinky20th Century FoxD+
1950Panic in the Streets20th Century FoxB+
1951A Streetcar Named DesireWarner Bros.A+
1952Viva Zapata!20th Century FoxC
1953Man on a Tightrope20th Century FoxC-
1954On the WaterfrontColumbia PicturesA
1955East of EdenWarner Bros.B+
1956Baby DollWarner Bros.B+
1957A Face in the CrowdWarner Bros.A-
1960Wild River20th Century FoxA-
1961Splendor in the GrassWarner Bros.A+
1963America, AmericaWarner Bros.C
1969The ArrangementWarner Bros. – Seven ArtsC-
1972The VisitorsUnited ArtistsD
1976The Last TycoonParamount PicturesC+

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