America, America

Elia Kazan’s most personal film might also be his leastknown. 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 thetypical Kazan film—Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty, MontgomeryClift, Natalie Wood,  Kirk Douglas,Vivien Leigh, to name just a few—are nowhere to be seen among its largelyunknown cast.  In fact, the star of America, America had little actingexperience and could barely speak English. Perhaps as a direct result of this, Stathis Giallelis brought aconsiderable authenticity to the role of Stavros, the tenacious young Greek whosets out to pursue a new life in America. Kazan clearly recognized that a matinee idol or seasoned method actorwould have failed to do the character justice. Stavros’s determination to reachAmerica corresponds to Giallelis’s struggle to overcome his disadvantages as anactor.

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