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The Essentials: 5 Elia Kazan Films You May Not Know

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by The Playlist Staff
February 22, 2013 2:02 PM
3 Comments
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Wild River

"Wild River" (1960)
Easily one of Kazan’s most overlooked movies, "Wild River" is also one of his best. Characteristically delicate, intimate, frank, and filled with a raw longing, ‘River’ features terrific and poignant performances by Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick. The fourth film of Clift's post-accident career -- his Brando-like trajectory was derailed by a disfiguring car accident that has been referred to as the "longest suicide in Hollywood history" because of the trauma sustained and the substance abuse that followed -- it’s also one of his finest. Clift stars as Chuck Glover, an idealistic Authority Agent sent to oversee the completion of a River Dam in the 1930s Tennessee Valley. Glover must evict tenants of an area that’s doomed to be flooded, but they don't want to leave, and he also encounters opposition caused by the racial politics of hiring black workers. Forced to evict an old woman (Jo Van Fleet) from her home, his job becomes deeply complicated when he falls in love with her daughter (Remick). Passionate, uncomfortable as a raw nerve in spots, and featuring a romance charged with an intense hunger, “Wild River” is melodrama, but a sumptuously performed and photographed one, carefully realized by its sensitively attuned and empathic director. [A-]

Splendor In The Grass

"Splendor in the Grass" (1961)
An even more frank depiction of sexuality and desire than "Baby Doll," with far less kitsch and more color (literally), "Splendor in the Grass" is a sort of small town American high school epic (at two hours +, it has the runtime to prove it). Set in Kansas just before the Great Depression, it stars an absolutely radiant Natalie Wood as Deanie, a high school girl dealing with her sexual desire for her boyfriend Bud (Warren Beatty in his first role – he even gets an "introducing" credit). At first the movie plays its small town prudishness for uneasy laughs, like when Deanie's mother describes the fact that she never had sex until her wedding night and even then it wasn't pleasant ("Women aren't supposed to enjoy those things"), but things become more intense and dramatic as the movie rolls along. A whole spectrum of female sexuality is depicted with an utter realism that nearly borders on actively feminist – Bud's sister (Barbara Loden) is a wild free spirit who is contained to the house because of her loose morals (it's local gossip that she's even had an abortion), and Deanie's repressed desires end up literally driving her mad. When the movie's second half veers into darker territory, including attempted suicide, rape, and institutionalization, the movie's effervescent fizz is definitely deflated. Still, its scope is admirable, especially when it pushes historical and social tropes, and it features an all-time great Pat Hingle performance as Ace's father (we love his speech about sending Ace to Yale – "Trust me, trust me, trust me"). Kazan's work here is delicate and nuanced, and it still seems kind of shocking that a prominent movie about the evils of abstinence was made in 1961. [B]

America, America

America, America” (1963)
Elia Kazan’s body of work can be broken up into two periods, those before and after the 1952 HUAC testimony, because everything irrevocably changed after that. While his greatest success, “On The Waterfront” (12 Oscar nominations, 8 wins including Best Picture and Director) came two years afterwards suggesting his career wasn’t hurt by his actions, the testimony in a way would only build in notoriety over the years. While his career wasn’t too affected at first, by the late 1950s and the 1960s Kazan was no longer at his peak where critics, awards and box-office were concerned. The scathing treatise on celebrity and television, “A Face In The Crowd” is one of his most searing pictures, but it was dismissed as too acidic by the culture at the time. And “Wild River,” as you read, was totally overlooked in every way. “Splendor in the Grass” got decent notices, but you could feel a kind of “fuck it” arrive in 1963 when Kazan released his magnum opus, “America, America” -- an almost-three-hour film, and his most personal, telling the story of an immigrant’s life as he emigrates to the land of promise and all the excruciating hardships he must endure to get there. Starring all unknowns, shot in beautiful black and white by the great Haskell Wexler ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "Bound For Glory," "Days of Heaven") and written, produced and directed by Kazan, “America, America” was, as if it were in any doubt, a massive labor of love. Loosely based on the story of his Greek uncle’s emigration from oppressive Turkey to the United States in the late 1890s, it’s not always successful either. Greek actor Stathis Giallelis, virtually in every frame of the movie, is real, but also awkward. The film is characteristically melodramatic, even sometimes a little overwrought, and its near three-hour running time demonstrates a filmmaker unwilling to make any compromises with his story (we don’t even get close to Stateside until the last fifteen minutes of this overlong film). Originally titled “The Anatolian Smile” -- loosely named after the region were Greeks were subjugated by the Turks and often lead an ingratiating life underfoot  -- Kazan described it as “the smile that covers resentment.” It was something he loathed in his father, and “America, America” certainly covers this complicated ground, using it as a launching pad to explore the ignominy his family had to endure, but also the individual whose rage, dissatisfaction and anger dictated that he could take it all no longer. The film would be Kazan’s last majorly lauded picture awards-wise. It earned four Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Director, but would only win for Gene Callahan's incredible Art Direction. [B-]

And that’s it for now, but there’s also “Viva Zapata” with Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn, and while it might not even be his 10th best movie, it's still watchable and compelling. Completists can check out the following: the uneven, testing-of-monogamy picture “The Arrangement,” the socially-charged “Pinky,” "Panic In The Streets" starring the great Richard Widmark, the legal noir “Boomerang,” the iron curtain drama “Man on a Tightrope,” and his final picture “The Last Tycoon” with Robert De Niro, to name most of his movies. Do you have a favorite, or feel like there’s an undersung Kazan gem that needs more love? Sound off in the comments and or just tell us what you think of his oeuvre overall. - Rodrigo Perez and Drew Taylor

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3 Comments

  • tania cinque | February 27, 2013 10:26 PMReply

    Snitch.

  • yer | February 22, 2013 3:34 PMReply

    I'm reading his autobiography right now. He literally just talks about sex the entire time. It's kind of disappointing.

  • John | February 22, 2013 4:11 PM

    sex and how sex makes people feel is a huge theme throughout Kazan's whole career.

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