Elia Kazan

Passages

UPDATED 10/13/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/13/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

The Brilliant Turncoat

Elia Kazan
b. 1909

"I'm glad what I done—you hear me? Glad what I done!" booms Marlon Brando's bitter fighter-turned-Mob-informant Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Coming just two years after the film's director appeared at a 1952 House Committee on Un-American Activities hearing, the words stung those who felt Elia Kazan should have apologized for handing over colleagues to McCarthyites. Angered, but unable to deny his talent, his peers awarded the film eight Oscars.

A master storyteller who used film as a bully pulpit against anti-Semitism (Gentleman's Agreement) and racism (Pinky), Kazan polarized Hollywood for decades. In 1999, when the Academy honored him for lifetime achievement—he directed 19 films that earned 21 Oscars—a few in the audience sat on their hands as others stood to applaud him.

Born Elia Kazanjioglou in Constantinople, Kazan emigrated at age 4 to New York, where his father sold rugs. After Yale drama school, he joined a left-wing theater group and later the Communist party. Though politics colored his legacy, he is remembered equally for his artistry. "He pointed the way to a new kind of moviemaking," says Martin Scorsese. "Brutally honest and emotionally overwhelming." Says Kazan's third wife, Frances, 56 (who, along with his four surviving children, was with him when he died at home in New York City on Sept. 28): "I don't think Elia had any regrets."

Five Kazan Film Classics

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945)
Kazan's skill with actors was amply evident in this warm coming-of-age story.

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951)
Kazan retained Tennessee Williams's poetry but added a blazing naturalism. Marlon Brando's primal howl, "Stella!" heralded a new era for screen acting.

ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)
With this crackling tale of union corruption among big-city dockworkers, Kazan gave Brando another chance to show why he was a contender.

A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957)
In a prescient satire, a hillbilly singer (Andy Griffith) turns TV demagogue.

SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961)
Natalie Wood and a fresh-faced Warren Beatty are teens in lust in a compulsively watchable drama best seen while still at an impressionable age.

The Blue-Blooded Everyman

George Plimpton
b. 1927

The son of a patrician ambassador, Man-about-Manhattan George Plimpton tried out as, among other unlikely professions, boxer, trapeze artist and NFL backup quarterback—all so he could write about his misadventures. But, says Alan Alda, who played him in 1968's Paper Lion, "the true George was a serious writer sometimes mistaken for an entertainer." Plimpton was also serious about other writers. As founding editor of The Paris Review beginning in 1953, he introduced the likes of Jack Kerouac and V.S. Naipaul. A twice-married father of four, Plimpton, who died Sept. 25 from heart problems, also acted, recently on ER and as the voice of a spelling bee proctor on The Simpsons. "I think," he said of that part, "that means I've made it."

The Natural

Althea Gibson
b. 1927

"She didn't see she was a pioneer," says Gibson's friend Frances Clayton Gray. "She tried as best she could not to pay attention to the bigotry. She said the only thing white she wanted to focus on was the tennis ball." The first African-American to play tennis at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open—and golf on the LPGA tour—Gibson called herself a "born athlete" and proved it by winning 56 tournaments, including Wimbledon in '57 and '58. Born to South Carolina sharecroppers, she supported her playing by working odd jobs before meeting boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, who, along with others, sponsored her early career. (He also bought Gibson a saxophone; a fine musician, in 1959 she recorded a vocal album.) In 1950 Gibson took the court at Forest Hills, N.Y., and broke tennis's color barrier. In the 1960s she joined the LPGA and, after retiring from sports, became New Jersey's athletics commissioner. Married twice, Gibson, who died at age 76 on Sept. 28 at a New Jersey hospital, lived her final years out of the spotlight—but she wasn't forgotten. "Her accomplishments," says Venus Williams (the second African-American woman to win at Wimbledon, four decades later), "set the stage for my success."

Addicted to Cool

Robert Palmer
b. 1949

Palmer never quite wanted to face it: The music videos he made in the mid-1980s with poker-faced models writhing to his Grammy-winning hits "Addicted to Love" and "Simply Irresistible" would be his best-known legacy. "They were the most iconic thing he did," says manager Mick Cater. "He couldn't get away from it." He tried. After his MTV peak, Palmer, who got his start opening for Jimi Hendrix, explored various genres—reggae, blues, jazz—with only modest commercial success. Inspired by Otis Redding and Nat King Cole, whom he listened to while growing up in Yorkshire, England, and Malta, Palmer modeled his dapper look on theirs and shunned rock and roll excess. ("I couldn't see the point of getting up in front of a lot of people when you weren't in control of your wits," he said in 1986.) Divorced with two children, he lived quietly in Switzerland with girlfriend Mary Ambrose, who was with him in Paris on Sept. 26 when he died of a heart attack at 54. "He was a fabulous singer," says his pal Sting. "A gentleman. And underrated."

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