Eleven years ago this week, on September 28, 2003, one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history passed away, Greek-American Elia Kazan.
As legendary an icon as Kazan was, and remains, his boundless shadow was considerably tainted by his cooperation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952. The HUAC, originally established in 1938 to investigate Nazis within the United States, had changed with the times as Communists had displaced Nazis by the 1950s as the primary enemy of concern. Inspired by Wisconsin Senator Joseph’s McCarthy anti-communist fervor (though McCarthy, of the Senate, was not party of the HUAC, which was situated in the House of Representatives), the HUAC interrogated many members of the entertainment industry believed to have been members of the Communist Party.
Kazan, born Elias Kazantzoglou in Constantinople in 1909 immigrated to the United States with his parents, George and Athena, in 1913. He was in fact a member of the American Communist Party during the mid-1930s, at the time of the Great Depression, but soon quit that party and abandoned that ideology.
Kazan said he was not about to risk his career by refusing to testify – to name others who were members of the Party with him – in order to protect an ideology in which he no longer believed. In 1999, when the Motion Picture Academy honored him with a lifetime achievement award, some in the audience sat with arms folded in protest, while others stood and applauded in support. He won the Oscar for Best Director twice, for Gentleman’s Agreement in 1948 and for On the Waterfront in 1955. The latter starred Marlon Brando, who won the Oscar for Best Actor. Widely regarded as one of the greatest actors in history, Brando said of Kazan: “I have worked with many movie directors—some good, some fair, some terrible. Kazan was the best actors’ director by far of any I’ve worked for…he was extraordinarily talented; perhaps we will never see his like again.”
Kazan was not merely at the top of his field among Greek-Americans. Rather, he was at the top of his field, period (as a director). Not just among Greek-Americans, but among virtually everyone.
A 1999 Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Kazan by another Oscar-winning director, Martin Scorcese, and another legendary actor, one whom both Kazan and Scorcese have directed, Robert DeNiro, both of whose lives he influenced tremendously. “Thank you all very much,” Kazan said as he embraced both Scorcese and DeNiro. “I think I can just slip away.”
Kazan died four years later.