October 2, 2003

Viewer Discretion Advised

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The film world lost a great director this past Sunday when Eliza Kazan passed away in New York City. The two-time Academy Award Winning director was behind the camera for 23 films. Five of his most notable achievements are below.

Gentleman’s Agreement

Kazan earned his first Academy Award nomination and victory for this film about racism and bigotry in America. Gregory Peck stars in an Oscar winning performance as a magazine columnist who decides to assume a Jewish identity in order to more closely study the effects of anti-Semitism. This film has been labeled “out-dated” and “too melodramatic” by modern viewers, but considering it was released soon after the conclusion of World War II it should still be credited as an ambitious, controversial project that ultimately found success.

A Streetcar Named Desire

This film needs little introduction. Marlon Brando delivers a mesmerizing, ground-shaking, and ultimately career-shaping performance as the “Stella!”-bellowing specimen of a husband who has little sympathy for his sister-in-law. This film earned Kazan his second Best Director nomination from the Academy, but he lost out to George Stevens for A Place in the Sun. Win or no win, this piece of work remains a classic to this day.

On the Waterfront

This film was the last of three collaborations between the legendary Brando and Kazan, and was very possibly the best. Brando stars as a prize-fighter wannabe named Terry Malloy who’s biggest fight turns out to be against his corrupt union boss, the incomparable Lee J. Cobb. This film has continued to entertain, and recently was rewarded by the American Film Institute as the #8 American Film of all time.

Splendor in the Grass

Another Kazan film, another career-making role. This time the superstar-in-the-making was Warren Beatty, who made his debut as the handsome and charming Bud Stamper. His passionate, dramatic, and eventually tragic romance with beauty Natalie Wood’s character in this film remains stunning and timeless. More than a tale of a love gone awry, deep beneath the romantic images lies a haunting tale about how prejudice and sexual oppression can destroy even the most seemingly perfect romance.

East of Eden

This is probably remembered as James Dean’s last film, but it deserves to stand alone as a great piece of writing, directing, and acting, set in the Salinas Valley during World War I. Dean stars as the frustrated Cal Trask, who is stuck in constant struggle with his brother for their father’s attention. But one quick caveat — the film was shot in cinemascope stock and does not translate very well into the VHS version. Without a widescreen version available, it’s hard to appreciate Kazan’s directorial talents, so evident in his other films.

Archived article by Jason Mednick