Kazan's Films as Dramatic as Life Itself; Ambivalent 'Maestro'

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Elia Kazan believed that two questions needed to be asked when considering heroes and villains. In the case of the hero: "What's wrong with him?" In the case of the villain: "What's his good side?"

An actor, director, novelist and figure of enduring controversy, Mr. Kazan died in Manhattan last weekend at the age of 94. By the time he published a prodigious autobiography, "A Life," in 1988, Mr. Kazan had become a confessional maestro of ambivalence. He chronicled his life and career with a sometimes brutal candor. Every chapter seemed a freshly opened book, even as he approached a last reckoning about all his self-conflicted struggles.

He enjoyed his greatest artistic success as a director, of course. From about 1947 to 1957, there was no more charismatic or provocative name associated with dramatic plays and movies than Elia Kazan.

A long and often discouraging apprenticeship with the Group Theatre during the 1930s culminated in Mr. Kazan's Broadway breakthrough with Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth" in 1942. By the end of the decade, when he also had Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" to his credit, Mr. Kazan appeared to own the inside track to the Pulitzer Prize.

During 1947, the same year "Streetcar" was mesmerizing theater audiences, Mr. Kazan confirmed his value in Hollywood by directing a high-minded Academy Award-winner for producer Darryl F. Zanuck, "Gentleman's Agreement." He later disparaged it as too polite in its methods of discrediting anti-Semitism, but it's difficult to envision a popular polemical film of the late 1940s that wouldn't have been cautious to a fault.

Mr. Kazan underrated his movie's erotic tension and glamour, now an enduring source of fascination in the interplay between co-stars Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire. They anticipate the sexual frankness and pathos in subsequent, albeit earthier, Kazan matches in "Streetcar," "On the Waterfront," "Baby Doll," "A Face in the Crowd" and "Splendor in the Grass."

Mr. Kazan always thought of his theater experience as preparation for an eventual career directing movies. He credited his Group Theatre mentors, Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg, with an outlook that reinforced his movie aspirations: "They made me feel that the performing arts, theater and film, can be as meaningful as the drama of living itself."

We're probably fortunate that there is an authoritative movie version of the original production of "Streetcar," with Broadway cast members Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden joined by Vivien Leigh, a neurotically supercharged outsider from the London company. Mr. Kazan resisted filming his theater triumphs; he relented in this case only. It's difficult to believe he would have settled for the lackluster "Death of a Salesman" that reached the screen in 1951.

Mr. Kazan professed to distrust success, especially as it affected actors. Instrumental in advancing the film careers of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Carroll Baker, Lee Remick and Warren Beatty, among others, he said, "I try to catch my actors at the moment when they're still, or once again, human. …