A LIFE: KAZAN (1908-2003)

Elia Kazan, who died last month, was misrepresented as an "actor's director," as "the father of Method acting in film," and as a House Un-American Activities Committee rat. In fact, Kazan was an auteur with the same degree of individual personality and heedless feverishness as his more praised contemporaries such as Douglas Sirk, Samuel Fuller, and Nicholas Ray.

Kazan's best movies are not acting workshops, but humid hothouses. Nothing ever nailed the crazy-making torridness of teen lust quite like Splendor in the Grass (1961); Kazan's Tennessee Williams-inspired Baby Doll (1967) took the comedy of sexual and material acquisition to an all-time high; and even a movie generally considered a stinker, The Arrangement (1969), pushes nearly as many stylistic hot buttons as Kill Bill Vol. 1. Kazan's best movie, the 1963 immigrant saga America America, influenced the canonical '70s directors and prefigured the independent film movement. But to understand the whirlpool of contradictory impulses that was Kazan, acquaint yourself with the apex of his life's work, an autobiography aptly titled A Life. Far more indelibly than his features--which, for all their roughhewn qualities, now carry the unwelcome taint of studio gloss--A Life depicts a character that David Denby memorably considered "whirling in a thicket of guilt and desire": Kazan himself, of course, a Dostoevskian traitor and libertine who makes Stanley Kowalski and Terry Malloy look like bums.

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