“The Birth of a Salesman”

         Elia Kazan was born 1909 in what was then, the Ottoman Empire and what is known as today as Turkey. Suffering the prejudice of being Greek from the newly form government of the Young Turks, his family emigrated to the United States in 1913 and settled in New York City.

         After Kazan graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts, he went to study drama at Yale University. In the ‘30’s, Kazan acted with New York’s Group Theatre, alongside Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odetts and Stella and Luther Adler, among many others.

         He became one of the most visible members of the Hollywood elite. Kazan's theater credits included acting in Men In White, Waiting for Lefty, Johnny Johnson, and Golden Boy, and directing A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), two of the plays that made Tennessee Williams a theatrical and literary force, and All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman, (1949) the plays which did much the same for Arthur Miller. He received three Tony Awards, winning for All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and J. B. He also won two Academy Awards for best director for On the Waterfront and Gentlemen’s Agreement.

         Although Kazan’s resume is scarcely less noteworthy, by directing a film like A Streetcar Named Desire, he certainly paved the way for other directors to not fear grabbing hold of a film that was as controversial as William’ Streetcar.

         Kazan's later career was marked by his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the postwar "Red Scare," in which he "named names." Some others who named names, for a variety of reasons, included Jerome Robbins, Robert Taylor, Sterling Hayden, Leo Townsend, Burl Ives, Budd Schulberg and Lela Rogers (mother of Ginger Rogers).

         Kazan had briefly been a member of the Communist Party in his youth, when working as part of a theater troupe, the Group Theatre, in the 1930s. At the time, the Group Theater included several theater professionals who had Communist or other left-wing sympathies. A committed Socialist, Kazan felt betrayed by Stalin’s atrocities and the ideological rigidity of Communists in general. He was personally offended when Party functionaries tried to intervene in the artistic decisions of his theater group.

         At first, although Kazan agreed to testify before HUAC, and readily admitted his former membership in the Communist Party, he refused to name others who had been members. But Kazan felt increasing pressure from Hollywood studio management to cooperate with the Committee and provided the names of former Party members or those connected with Party activities, in order to preserve his career.

         Kazan was also nominated for an Academy Award for best director for A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden and America, America (a film loosely based on Kazan’s uncle was also nominated for best adapted screenplay from his own novel.)

         Although Kazan was not always well liked throughout Hollywood, most did respect him for his artistic endeavors. Kazan might not had made a film that was epic as King Kong for its time, but he could definitely tell a story better than most of his colleagues in his day.

         After receiving Oscar’s lifetime achievement award in 1999, Elia Kazan has become one of Hollywood’s most controversial directors of cinema history. Some hate him, some love him, and some just respect him. But regardless, Kazan’s hard hitting, real to life directing style has inspired two great film makers such as Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro, who accompanied him on stage to receive his lifetime achievement award.

Derek Owen

Table of Contents