Although deceased for more than a decade, Elia Kazan remains one of Hollywood’s most polarizing figures. Born Ilias Kazantzoglou to ethnic Greek parents in Constantinople (present day Istanbul) in 1909. Kazan emigrated to the United States and over his career, became one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century.
A new book: The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan, recently released, shares a collection of nearly three hundred letters giving readers the life of Elia Kazan unfiltered, with all the passion, vitality, and raw honesty that Kazan was known for. The book includes a letter to his wife when he admits to an affair with Marilyn Monroe (“a touching pathetic waif”), another chastising Warren Beatty for being a diva and opened up to his wife about how much he hated Hollywood, “in a shrieking insane way. … It’s like the grave, the tomb, the charnel pit — except it’s all very fancy … full of really very fine people, all in various stages of decomposition, without knowing” — but came to Tinseltown anyway because that’s where movies are made.
Other letters include raw openness about Paul Newman’s masculinity and talent, and his defense of including risqué scenes in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” at the time of the film’s release, a hot topic in the American media.
Kazan directed such classics as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955) and Splendor in the Grass (1961). His career began on the stage and, as such, Kazan was an actor’s director; Kazan introduced a new generation of unknown young actors to the movie audiences and in the process “discovering” actors like Marlon Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty.
During his career, he won two Oscars as Best Director and received an Honorary Oscar, won three Tony Awards, and four Golden Globes. Noted for drawing out the best dramatic performances from his actors, he directed 21 actors to Oscar nominations, resulting in nine wins.
He also loved writers and proved an important collaborator for such icons as Tennessee Williams and John Steinbeck.
Kazan also authored numerous books himself, including several like The Anatolian, America America and Beyond the Aegean, outlining his deep connection to his complicated Greek heritage and the impact it had on him and his career. He often corrected people who called him “Turkish-born,” reminding them that he was an Anatolian Greek.
But when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about being a member of the Communist Party in the ’30s, he “named names” — an act that drew scorn from some of his contemporaries and colored his career and his 1999 honorary Oscar (some of the attendees, like Kirk Douglas, steadfastly refused to applaud).