Here are the five best Elia Kazan movies
It’s hard to overstate the impact of Elia Kazan’s career on the art of movie acting. One way to measure his influence is to look at a performance from even one of his lesser films of the 1950s and ’60s — say, Carroll Baker’s overripe child bride in the delightfully lurid ”Baby Doll,” or Montgomery Clift’s tormented bureaucrat in ”Wild River” — and imagine how out of place its raw, messy emotion would be in Hollywood’s meticulously crafted, decorously acted farces and dramas of the ’30s and ’40s, and how at home it would seem in most Hollywood movies from the ’70s or later.
Kazan cofounded the Actors Studio, won three Tonys as a Broadway director, and brought the Studio’s ”Method” to the stage in milestone productions of plays by such dramatists as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams — and caused a similar revolution in movies by bringing some of those same playwrights and actors to the screen. It seems surprising now that the screen performances he guided were such a shock and a revelation? until you see them again for yourself and are astonished once more. Here are five of Kazan’s most searing screen rebellions.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Kazan transferred most of his Broadway cast intact to the screen version, save for Jessica Tandy. Replacement Vivien Leigh, in an echo of her other great role, as Scarlett O’Hara, created an unforgettable Blanche DuBois, the archetype of the faded Southern belle. All the players in Williams’ claustrophobic, sweltering drama get a chance to shine, including Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, and nearly everyone won an Oscar, except for Kazan and Marlon Brando. The T-shirted Brando as the brutal, wily Stanley Kowalski, screaming ”Stella!”, is an unforgettable moment in film history, but that moment seems almost an afterthought in the performance that may stand as the single dividing line between film’s stagebound past and its naturalistic future. The movies had never seen anything like it — maybe they still haven’t.
On the Waterfront (1954) Many viewers (including Kazan himself) saw this tale of a longshoreman persuaded to risk his life and testify against Mob corruption of his union as a defense of Kazan’s own conduct in outing his former friends as communists when he testified to Congress in 1952. Like other parables from the era (”High Noon,” ”Invasion of the Body Snatchers,”) this Best Picture winner was a rallying cry against conformity and complacency that could be read as either anticommunist or anti-McCarthyist. Today, the movie’s politics register as less important than its succession of indelible scenes — Malden’s tough sermonizing as the waterfront priest, Brando’s tender moments with Eva Marie Saint and his birds, and of course, the taxicab speech where Brando tells brother Rod Steiger, ”I coulda been a contender.” Kazan’s bracing realism, the electricity of Budd Schulberg’s ripped-from-the-headlines script, and the gritty pathos of Brando and Saint all won deserved Oscars.
East of Eden (1955) Kazan introduced the Method’s other great early star, James Dean, to screen audiences in this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Cain-and-Abel story. Kazan went so far as to orchestrate off-screen friction between Dean and old-school Raymond Massey (who plays Dean’s on-screen father) to create sparks between them on film. Jo Van Fleet has a small but striking (and Oscar-winning) part as Cal’s venomous, brothel-madam mom, and Julie Harris is achingly moving as Abra, the girl who tries to understand him.
A Face in the Crowd (1957) Sure, you think of Andy Griffith as folksy Sheriff Andy Taylor or as foxy lawyer Matlock, but can you imagine him playing scary? Kazan got a frightening performance out of him as Lonesome Rhodes, a guitar-picking crackpot cracker-barrel philosopher who goes from the drunk tank to nationwide TV stardom in a flash. Even in the age of 24-hour cable news and opinionated bloggers all over the Internet, Kazan’s satire of media demagoguery (scripted by ”Waterfront”’s Schulberg) is still prescient.
Splendor in the Grass (1961) Warren Beatty got his first screen role, and Natalie Wood her first truly mature part, in this heavy-breathing tale of teenage lust crashing against the realities of class, money, and sexual double standards. The Beatty persona — the well-meaning golden boy whose exterior charm masks a roiling interior life, a role on which Beatty has played variations for the rest of his career — was created here, while Wood has seldom shown more range than she did here as a good girl driven round the bend by sexual repression. (William Inge, the playwright who explored similar territory in ”Picnic,” won an Oscar for his original screenplay). Kazan also shows off a lavish eye for Technicolor lushness. Even when his characters are melting down or going up in flames, they look spectacular.