America, America

Elia Kazan’s most personal film might also be his least known. The long-neglected America, America (1963) has never enjoyed the “classic” status of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or On the Waterfront (1954). The sort of luminaries that populate the typical Kazan film—Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty, Montgomery Clift, Natalie Wood,  Kirk Douglas, Vivien Leigh, to name just a few—are nowhere to be seen among its largely unknown cast.  In fact, the star of America, America had little acting experience and could barely speak English. Perhaps as a direct result of this, Stathis Giallelis brought a considerable authenticity to the role of Stavros, the tenacious young Greek who sets out to pursue a new life in America. Kazan clearly recognized that a matinee idol or seasoned method actor would have failed to do the character justice. Stavros’s determination to reach America corresponds to Giallelis’s struggle to overcome his disadvantages as an actor.

 

The film is also worthy for its panoramic array of characters (soldiers, con artists, thieves, anarchists, merchants, beggars, prostitutes, millionaires) and Haskell Wexler’s predictably excellent black-and-white cinematography (he went on to win the 1967 Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Its most intriguing element, however, may be the director’s self-reflexive introductory voice-over: “My name is Elia Kazan. I am a Greek by blood, a Turk by birth, and an American because my uncle made a journey.” If Stavros’s arduous path eventually led to Kazan’s American citizenship, could we argue that the uncle’s efforts enabled the nephew’s entire career? What makes America, America unique is the subtle way it uses its own beauty and coherence to suggest that the greatest result of Stavros’s journey is the depiction of the journey itself.      

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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