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5 Great Films Directed by Elia Kazan

The Controversial Actor's Director

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An actor’s director who introduced the world to the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, Elia Kazan crafted hard-hitting message movies that focused on personal struggles in the face of societal issues. Whether confronting racial prejudice, working class struggle or mental illness, Kazan was both fearless and controversial in directing some of the most important movies of the 20th century.

Though he heaped scorn and animosity upon himself after “naming names” before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), Kazan remained one of the era’s top directors who drew from his actors some of the greatest performances ever committed to film.

1. ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ – 1945

20th Century Fox
With his first filmmaking effort, Kazan established himself as a promising new director who tackled social issues head-on and drew Oscar-caliber performances from his actors. Adapted from the best-selling 1943 novel by Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn focused on the struggles of a turn-of-the-20th-century tenement family struggling to make ends meet. Their alcoholic patriarch (James Dunn) has pie-in-the-sky dreams that are dashed by his irresponsible behavior, while their steadfast matriarch struggles to hold it all together. All is told from the point of view of the realistic daughter (Peggy Ann Garner), who tries to reconcile her plight with her love for her father.
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2. ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ – 1947

20th Century Fox
Kazan won the first of two Oscars for directing this groundbreaking film that dared to directly confront the scourge of anti-Semitism. Gentleman’s Agreement started Gregory Peck as a widowed big city journalist tasked by his editor (Albert Dekker) to write about anti-Semitism, leading him to pose as a Jewish man in an affluent Connecticut community to unearth a story. In the weeks that pass, he’s exposed to racism both subtle and extreme, while also falling in love with his editor’s daughter (Dorothy McGuire), who teaches him that even those professing not to harbor bigotry are capable of it. A controversial picture due to its unrelenting look at its subject matter, Gentleman’s Agreement was a big box office hit and earned eight Academy Awards, winning three statuettes including Best Picture and Best Director.
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3. ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ – 1951

Warner Bros.
In adapting Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play for the big screen, Kazan not introduced the world to Marlon Brando, but he also directed a classic film that had won three out of four acting Academy Awards. A Streetcar Named Desire starred Vivien Leigh as the aristocratic Blanche DuBois, who visits her pregnant sister, Stella (Kim Hunter), in New Orleans while hoping to put her dark past behind her. While there, she clashes with Stella’s brutal husband, Stanley (Brando), and becomes attracted to his friend, Mitch (Karl Malden). Leigh, Hunter and Malden won Academy Awards, though Brando was passed over in favor of Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. Kazan earned his due with his second Best Director nomination, but more importantly he made a groundbreaking picture that transformed the way theater was adapted into film.
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4. ‘On the Waterfront’ – 1954

Sony Pictures
Believed to have been made in response to Kazan’s notorious testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, On the Waterfront was a tremendous achievement that won eight Academy Awards and became one of the seminal movies on the 20th century. Brando starred as Terry Malloy, a dim-witted and washed-up boxer working the docks in New Jersey who’s compelled to testify against the mob after witnessing the murder of a fellow longshoreman. Standing in his corner are a local priest (Karl Malden) and the woman he loves (Eva Marie Saint), while his mob-connected brother (Rod Steiger) tries to persuade him to keep quiet. On the Waterfront has long been considered an allegorical defense of Kazan “naming names” before HUAC, but more importantly the film was a landmark achievement that earned him his second Oscar for Best Director.
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5. ‘East of Eden’ – 1955

Warner Bros.
As he did with Brando earlier in the decade, Kazan propelled previously unknown actor James Dean into an overnight star and established him as a cultural icon representing disillusioned youth. In this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, Dead played Cal, the troubled son of a moderately successful farmer (Raymond Massey) who clashes with favored son Adam (Richard Davalos). Even when given the chance to save the farm from ruin after taking a gamble on a risky crop, Cal is unable to win his father’s acceptance. A thinly-guised retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, East of Eden featured some of the director’s greatest visual imagery thanks to his use of CinemaScope to brilliantly capture California’s farmland and earned Kazan another Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
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