He changed everything. Before ELIA KAZAN, movie and stage acting occupied a realm of easy glamour. Actors prized articulation; even street-bred stars like Cagney and Stanwyck spoke with a cutting efficiency. But with A Streetcar Named Desire, the Tennessee Williams play Kazan directed on Broadway in 1947 and filmed in 1951, pop culture was yanked into real life.
Early in the film, Vivien Leigh, as the Southern belle with patrician airs, lays eyes on Marlon Brando as sweaty, sexy, brutal Stanley Kowalski. That's the crucial moment when films gave up a love of the American aristocracy for a fascination with the roiling underclass, and when actors were given license to rage and mumble--to express the inchoate feelings of souls caged or adrift, doomed by society or destiny.
Kazan rose from the class he later re-created with such acuity. He was born Elia Kazanjoglou to Greek parents who immigrated to America. He acted in the Group Theatre, then shone as the director of plays by Williams, Thornton Wilder and Arthur Miller. In 1947 Kazan co-founded the Actors Studio, which spawned several generations of serious stars. His direction of Brando in On the Waterfront and James Dean in East of Eden defined and sanctified the image of the beautiful, battered outsider.
In later years, Kazan was one of those. He was never forgiven for identifying himself and a few old friends as onetime communists before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Tributes to the old lion were booed, boycotted, canceled. His enemies forgot that even belated opposition to Soviet communism at its most rapacious could be an act of principle as well as expediency--and that an artist's most telling testimony is his work. By that standard, Kazan was an admirable American original. --By Richard Corliss