Elia Kazan

the greatest acting quartet in film history:  Karl Malden, Kim Hunter, Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

the greatest acting quartet in film history: Karl Malden, Kim Hunter, Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

  • Born: 1909
  • Died: 2003
  • Rank: 21
  • Score: 670.20
  • Awards: 2 Oscars / DGA / 4 Golden Globes / 3 NYFC / NBR
  • Nominations: 5 Oscars / 7 DGA / 4 Golden Globes
  • Feature Films: 19
  • Best: A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Worst: The Visitors

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. A Streetcar Named Desire – 1951
  2. On the Waterfront – 1954
  3. Gentleman’s Agreement – 1947
  4. East of Eden – 1955
  5. Baby Doll – 1956

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1945 – 8th – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  • 1947 – 5th – Gentleman’s Agreement
  • 1950 – 8th – Panic in the Streets
  • 1951 – 1st – A Streetcar Named Desire
  • 1954 – 1st – On the Waterfront
  • 1955 – 8th – East of Eden
  • 1956 – 10th – Baby Doll
  • 1957 – 9th – A Face in the Crowd

There are many who will never forgive Elia Kazan. He went in front of HUAC and he testified, and then, to make matters worse (in many eyes) he made a film to justify his testifying – On the Waterfront. But the fact of the matter is that Kazan is one of the greatest directors in film history. He won two Oscars, he deserved to win another one. Andrew Sarris may have included him in a chapter titled “Less Than Meets the Eye” but he also included John Huston, David Lean and Billy Wilder and I will take any of those over some of his pantheon directors like Josef Von Sternberg and Max Ophuls. Kazan’s style never fit properly into the auteur theory and by the time those director worshippers were coming to the forefront of film criticism, Kazan’s time had passed. His work declined in the sixties and of his five weakest films, four were made after 1960. But his place in film history had already been saved. He had directed 7 Oscar winning performances and between Brando and Dean had brought method acting to the forefront of film-making.

A Streetcar Named Desire – #1 film of 1951

Kazan directed the single greatest acted film in history.  Of course, while the acting alone would have immortalized it, that alone wouldn’t make it one of the 20 greatest films in history.  There was the writing (one of the greatest stage plays ever written) and the directing (brilliant from the first minute).  Of course, the technical aspects are fantastic as well – sublime art direction, a great, moody score, fantastic cinematography, subtle editing.  But in the end, what has to be seen is the acting.

After 1951, Kim Hunter, outside of her appearance in Planet of the Apes, was mostly known for doing guest appearances on what seems like hundreds of television shows.  But up until then, she had proven herself to be a great actress.  She had been in the American added scenes for Powell’s A Canterbury Tale and later starred in his Stairway to Heaven, a great lovely performance.  But really nothing else in her career could make us expect what she gives us in Streetcar.  She is subtle and sexy and desperate and she makes us understand why she would still be with Stanley, why she would respond to his desperate cry.

Karl Malden died earlier this year and though it had been a long time since he had really done anything on film and many in my generation probably (sadly) know him for his American Express ads, but at least he had gotten his due once.  He won the Oscar for Streetcar for his brilliant performance and though he should have won for On the Waterfront, he at least did earn a nomination.  But those two performances (and his third great Kazan performance, as the frustrated husband in Baby Doll) are only part of a long fantastic career.

Was there ever an actress more properly treated by the Academy as Vivien Leigh was?  She was a good actress and she gave several good performances over the years, but she gave two brilliant performances in her career, two of the greatest performances by any actress and the Academy gave her Oscars for both and never nominated her again.  And consider that Leigh, a British actress born in India, brought over in the hopes she would play Scarlett, but mainly because she was sleeping with Olivier, who had come to the States to play Heathcliff, and yet, she won both Oscars for twice playing Southern belles, two very different women, the powerful Southern beauty, and the faded desperate Southern belle that we really understand when she says that she has always depended on the kindness of strangers.

Then there is Marlon Brando.  In later years he would become unreliable, troublesome, relying on past success, bitter at the world he was raised in, furious at the industry he felt was cheating him.  He would thumb his nose at the Academy, try to sink Apocalypse Now, refuse to wear pants on a set and make all likenesses of him be removed from Superman II.  But before all that he was a revolutionary artist on film.  In the space of four years he was nominated for 4 Oscars, winning the final one, gave an iconic performance that wasn’t nominated (The Wild One), and gave what is probably the single greatest performance in the history of film.  He wasn’t the first method actor to appear on film (he was following Montgomery Clift), but the way he did it on screen, the movements, the raw emotions, the way the language comes from his lips, the desperate cry of “Stella!” that permeates all film history influenced everything to come.  For where would the new generation of Newman and Beatty and younger actors like Day-Lewis and Fiennes be without James Dean and where would Dean have been without Brando?  This is it, the birth of modern film acting, the film that began it all.  And no, Brando didn’t win the Oscar and neither did Kazan or the film.  But Leigh did and Malden did and Hunter did and I think even Bogart, who did win, knew that Brando had earned it.