Every artist has a moment early in their career that, without knowing it at the time, serves as a symbol for the rest of their lives. For Elia Kazan, that moment would be when he was a struggling member of the radical Group Theatre, cooperatively helmed by Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman.

In Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty,” Kazan, as Agate, sounded the final call for a strike, and called the audience to strike as well. It was the turning point for the troupe, for Odets and for Kazan. The moment was an apotheosis of ’30s leftist American theater, the obliteration of theater’s fourth wall, and the beginning of what would prove to be one of the most astonishing theater-film careers in the country’s history.

Even as Kazan nears his 90th birthday, and as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Board of Governors has selected Kazan for an honorary Oscar (though his health is described by the family to the New York Times’ Bernard Weinraub as “alternately vigorous and frail,” Kazan is expected to attend the March 21 ceremonies), the emotions contained in that cry of Kazan’s Agate aren’t dissipating.

For it is the landscape of human emotions that has always has been Kazan’s territory. At his artistic peak in the late ’40s and through the ’50s, there may have been other American filmmakers, such as John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock, with a richer cinematic sense, “but no one approached him when it came to expressing feelings and emotions onscreen,” says New York Magazine critic Peter Rainer.

‘Waterfront’ a watershed

The peak for Rainer and other critics including Kazan hiographer Thomas H. Pauly in his brilliant study, “An American Odyssey,” was 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” which came through on 8 of its 12 Oscar nominations, including best picture and a second directing award for Kazan. His first was for his studious 1947 indictment of anti-Semitism, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” starring Gregory Peck. Other Oscar directing nominations include “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “East of Eden,” and “America, America.”

“‘Waterfront’ was amazing work,” notes Rainer, “because the actors seem to live their roles with a natural intensity that is hard to find in any other movie of the period.”

Time magazine critic and longtime Kazan observer Richard Schickel, who wrote and produced a 1995 documentary on Kazan and is producing the film portion of the honorary Oscar ceremony, remarks, “Kazan wanted to put his actors in as real an environment as possible, so it was freezing cold on those waterfront docks and on the streets, and it made the actors look a little harder and tougher. There was none of that rosy-cheeked makeup of a Hollywood set.

“Kazan was then the pre-eminent film and theater director in America,” Schickel adds. “He commanded the theatrical arts as no one has before or since. He did this, I think, because he was able to bring the sense of behavioral authenticity in acting to a large public. This was an enormously important thing.”

Making careers

Equally enormous, perhaps, was his ability to draw out performances from young, often unknown, actors — performances that launched careers and sometimes superstardom.

From his early days out of Yale as a hungry radical, the Constantinople-born son of Greek immigrant parents went from making openly quasi-Marxist stage works to — by the 1950s — fueling the stardom of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Carroll Baker, Andy Griffith, Lee Remick, Walter Matthau, Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood.

“Look, (Fred) Zinnemann was as good with Brando and (Montgomery) Clift in his movies as Kazan was, and worked with them before Kazan did,” Rainer observes. “But we tend to remember the Brando-Kazan performances, especially in ‘Waterfront’ and as Stanley Kowalski in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ He allowed Brando and other actors to work out their emotions in ways we’d never seen before. And he got generally strong performances because actors always appreciate directors who appreciate actors, and Kazan was that.”

That seemed to be the case because Kazan started as an actor before shifting to directing. Yet as Pauly notes, Kazan’s top priority was always to be a filmmaker, triggered by viewings of Russian silent films, including Eisenstein’s “The Battleship Potemkin.”

“By the time of ‘Viva Zapata!’ (in 1952),” says Rainer, “Kazan started using the camera, more than the conventional-looking studio films of the late ’40s like ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ and ‘Pinky.’ “And it is in “Zapata,” with plentiful use of wide-angle focal lengths and low-angle shots, that a strong Eisenstein visual influence comes to the fore.

During this time as he developed a film sense quite apart from his highly developed stage approach, Kazan worked with such distinguished cinematographers as Boris Kaufman (an Oscar winner for “Waterfront”), who had made Jean Vigo’s great experimental silent films, including “Zero de Conduit.”

The brisk, stark black-and-white photography of Kazan’s brilliant, unjustly overlooked “A Face in the Crowd,” or of “Baby Doll” or “Splendor in the Grass,” was carried to a higher level with a then-unknown cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, for Kazan’s first truly personal film, “America, America” (nominated for a 1963 best picture Oscar).

“You could say he was taking a chance hiring me,” says Wexler, who had ironically been a victim of the same McCarthy-era blacklist to which Kazan served as a notorious so-called “friendly witness.” “I was pretty unknown, but because I had done second-unit work on his movie with Monty Clift, ‘Wild River,’ … he trusted me. I think ‘America, America’ is the best photography I ever did, mainly because I could see that Kazan was so driven to make as good a film as he could, and I respected his drive to make a personal film. I appreciate it then, and I appreciate it now.”

Kazan’s impulse to make a film about his Greek uncle in “America, America” or his own life in his adaptation of his own novel, “The Arrangement” (1969), stemmed partly from his having worked so long directing the stories of many of his era’s greatest writers.

Playwrights’ friend

Beginning with Odets, Kazan was the only director of his generation to collaborate with all of America’s star playwrights: Thornton Wilder on the challenging staging of “The Skin of Our Teeth”; Maxwell Anderson on “Truckline Cafe,” whose cast included unknowns Brando and Malden; Tennessee Williams on the stage and film versions of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Camino Real,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the original script of “Baby Doll”); Arthur Miller on “All My Sons,” the landmark “Death of a Salesman” and “After the Fall,” at the ill-fated Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre; Robert Anderson on “Tea and Sympathy”; and William Inge on a rare foray into film with “Splendor in the Grass”.

That list alone is astonishing, but it doesn’t include the other key Kazan collaborators — the novelists. There was John Steinbeck, with “Zapata” and “East of Eden,” then Budd Schulberg, first with “Waterfront” and then with “A Face in the Crowd”.

Given such a stream of awe-inspiring credits and talent, it’s easily lost that Kazan’s career — apart from his broiling controversy as the House Un-American Activities Committee’s informant poster child — was a roller-coaster ride. From early Federal Theatre Projects in 1941 culminating at the end of the decade with “Salesman,” Kazan arguably ruled Broadway. At the same time, he began making his mark in Hollywood, albeit unevenly.

Differing opinions

“With its sweet toughness, ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ is his first truly great film,” says Schickel. Other critics like Rainer, though, think Kazan failed in his early social message movies like “Pinky,” and “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which even Kazan now dismisses as “far too polite.” With other films like “Boomerang” and “Panic in the Streets,” Kazan finally brought his camera outdoors, into the urban streets he knew so well.

His battles with studio censors and the Catholic Church over “Streetcar,” as well as Darryl F. Zanuck over “Zapata” (which Zanuck viewed as insufficiently anti-communist in the poisonous McCarthyite environment swamping Hollywood) wore him down.

“Waterfront” marks an astonishing comeback, after box office failure and the growing wrath and/or alienation (especially from Miller, his artistic “brother”) he felt in the wake of his HUAC testimony. “East of Eden,” which showcased both Dean and the wonders of Cinemascope, was the next hit. “Baby Doll,” “Face in the Crowd” and “Wild River” tanked, however, and even the modest success of 1961’s “Splendor” couldn’t earn Kazan the kind of budget he needed for his independently produced “America, America.”

“We struggled on that one,” recalls Wexler. “There was just no money. In fact, we ran out of it, until new producers came on board.”

The old Kazan momentum ground to a halt: He didn’t make another film until six years later, “The Arrangement” (1969), and then seven years later, “The Last Tycoon” (his last film with “Waterfront” producer Sam Speigel), and the seldom-seen “The Visitors” in 1972.

With the ups and downs, though, there is a consistency of themes and concerns, says Schickel.

“He made these films and plays in an era when father supposedly knew best. But his work says father may not know best. His sense of the failed father is all over his autobiography (“A Life”) and his work. There’s the failed Jimmy Dunn in ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ the deeply conflicted weaknesses of Willy Loman in ‘Salesman,’ Raymond Massey’s brutal unyielding manner in ‘East of Eden’ or Pat Hingle in ‘Splendor.’ Even Rod Steiger as Brando’s brother in ‘Waterfront’ is the failed surrogate father, as when Brando cries out, ‘Why didn’t you look out for me?’

“This was linked with a repressed sexuality that had to be freed, like you see with Carroll Baker in ‘Baby Doll’ or Natalie Wood in ‘Splendor,”‘ Schickel notes. “Kazan saw an authentic yearning for some kind of transcendence in the lives of ordinary people, often outsiders, immigrants like himself. If it was sex or patriarchy, which he equated with Stalinism, he stood for a party of common sense and decency.”