Theatre yesterday and today



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September 7, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

He directed twenty-one actors to Academy Award nominations and nine wins; he won two, and one honorary Oscar. He was nominated for seven Tony Awards as well, winning three. He co-founded the Actors Studio. He was Elia Kazan, the subject of today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”

September 7, 1909 marks the birthdate of Elia Kazan, probably the most influential director of the twentieth century. Canny, charismatic and controversial, the diverse list of plays and films he worked on run the gamut. He worked side by side with so many great writers that his influence on their work cannot be underestimated. Here’s a sampling of just some of the authors, playwrights and screenwriters with whom he collaborated in theatre and film (alphabetically, so as not to rate anyone’s importance):

Robert Anderson (Tea and Sympathy)

James Baldwin (Blues for Mister Charlie)

S.N. Behrman (One Touch of Venus, Jacobowsky and the Colonel, But for Whom Charlie)

Moss Hart (Gentleman’s Agreement)

William Inge (The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Splendor in the Grass)

Alan Jay Lerner (Love Life)

Archibald MacLeish (J.B.)

Arthur Miller (All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, After the Fall, Incident at Vichy)

Paul Osborn (East of Eden)

Harold Pinter (The Last Tycoon)

Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd)

John Steinbeck (Viva Zapata!)

Thornton Wilder (The Skin of Our Teeth)

Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, Baby Doll)

Elia Kazan (1909–2003).

There is simply no other director who even comes close to approaching such a prolific and wide-ranging set of stories from so many award-winning writers. He was the #1 choice, the go-to director, from the early forties until the mid-sixties. It’s amazing how much he crammed in during such a relatively short period of time.

As for the actors he worked with… well, suffice it to say, he’s the only one who directed the likes of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean in major motion pictures. To list all who benefited from his guidance would be considerable, many of whom came out of the Actors Studio (which he co-founded in 1947 with Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis). Add teacher to his list of accomplishments, alongside novelist, which is how he spent his years after retiring from directing in 1976 with The Last Tycoon, which starred Robert DeNiro and featured Jack Nicholson. He also wrote an autobiography, A Life (1988), which clocks in at 825 pages of text. And yes, it’s a fascinating read.

Julie Harris and James Dean in East of Eden (1955).

Elia Kazan was born Elias Kazantzoglou in Turkey, the son of George and Athena Kazantzoglou (née Shishmanoglou). His father came to America first, later sending for his family, which included Kazan when he was four, along with his mother and younger brother. Small for his age, Kazan was withdrawn as a ch