Released in 1954, Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront is considered by many to be one of the greatest American films ever made. While Kazan and his legacy have been complicated and in many ways tarnished by the fact that he testified against friends...
Elia Kazan (born Elia Kazantzoglou) was born in Constantinople in 1909 to Greek parents. When he was four years old, his parents emigrated to the United States, where Kazan would attend school. As a child, he felt alienated from his surroundings, relating neither to his Greek Orthodox parents nor the mainstream American culture into which they were trying to assimilate. He attended Williams College in Massachusetts, waiting tables to make tuition and eventually graduating cum laude. He then attended the Yale School of Drama, before moving to New York City to begin a career as an actor.
In New York, Kazan joined a small theater group committed to presenting socially- and politically-conscious work, the Group Theater. In New York, he transitioned out of acting into directorial duties, and became one of the leading theater and film directors of the early- to mid-20th century. Particularly esteemed for his ability to evoke authentic performances from his actors (largely due to his affiliation with acclaimed Method acting teachers like Lee Strasberg) Kazan has widely been celebrated as one of the greatest Broadway and Hollywood directors. Before branching out into film, he founded the Actors Studio in 1947, a workshop that specialized in training actors in the "Method," an acting style that seeks to mine the personal experience of the actor himself, based on teachings by the Russian acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski.
His many directing credits in the theater include Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, which would launch the career of Marlon Brando, who would later star in Kazan's 1954 film On the Waterfront. His films include East of Eden, Gentleman's Agreement, On the Waterfront, America America, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Baby Doll, Splendor in the Grass, and The Last Tycoon. Throughout his career, he won 2 Oscars as well as an honorary Oscar, 3 Tony Awards, and 4 Golden Globes.
While Kazan was lauded as an "actors' director" and celebrated for his social consciousness, his career was also clouded with infamy and controversy when he chose to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, outing several colleagues as card-carrying Communists and basically ending the career of renowned American playwright Clifford Odets. His testimony provoked animosity from many colleagues and friends who saw his choice as unjust at the time. On the Waterfront is viewed as his subtle rebuttal to this animosity, the story of a man who must betray his colleagues in order to do what he thinks is right.