Elia Kazan (September 7, 1909 - September 28, 2003), born Elia Kazanjoglous, a Greek-born American director of theater and film, was one of the most visible members of the Hollywood elite.
His remarkable theater credits included directing The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, the two plays that made Tennessee Williams a theatrical and literary force, and All My Sons and Death of a Salesman the plays which did much the same for Arthur Miller.
His history as a film director is scarcely less noteworthy. He won two Academy Awards for Best Director, for Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and On the Waterfront (1954). He elicited remarkable performances from actors such as Vivien Leigh in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, James Dean in East of Eden, and Andy Griffith in A Face In The Crowd.
His later career was clouded, however, by the fact that he was one of the few Hollywood luminaries who "named names" before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the postwar Red Scare spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy). Kazan had briefly been a member of the Communist Party in his youth, when working as part of a radical theatre troupe in the 1930s. A committed liberal, Kazan felt betrayed by the atrocities of Stalin and the ideological rigidity of the Stalinists. He was personally offended when Party functionaries tried to intervene in the artistic decisions of his theater group.
As Kazan later explained, he felt that it was in the best interest of the country and his own liberal beliefs to cooperate with McCarthy's anti-communist efforts in order to counter Communists in Hollywood who were co-opting the liberal agenda. American playwrights Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller publicly and bitterly disagreed with Kazan's reasoning.
Kazan's On the Waterfront, about a heroic mob informer, is widely considered to be his answer to his critics. Miller's The Crucible, about a heroic New England Puritan who chooses to die rather than make false accusations of witchcraft, was his response to Kazan.
One of those he named, noted actor John Garfield, with whom he had worked in the Group Theatre troupe, was investigated by HUAC, which failed to uncover any corroborating evidence of Communist Party membership. Garfield was nonetheless blacklisted by Hollywood, ending a promising career, and died the next year, aged 39.
In 1999, Kazan received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. While many in Hollywood felt that enough time had passed that it was appropriate to bury the hatchet and recognize Kazan's great artistic accomplishments, the decision was nonetheless controversial. Some footage from the 1999 Oscars suggests that only three-quarters of those present gave him a standing ovation.
Elia Kazan died of natural causes at his home in New York. He was 94.