#419) America America (1963)
OR “My Big Fat Greek Emigration”
Directed & Written by Elia Kazan
Class of 2001
The Plot: Based on the true story of Elia Kazan’s family, “America America” chronicles a young man’s journey from his oppressed Greek family living under the Ottoman Empire to his arrival in America. Shortly after the Armenian genocide of the late 1890s, Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis) is entrusted with his family’s fortune to travel to Constantinople and work for his cousin (Harry Davis). Stavros, however, secretly wishes to go to America and send for his family once he’s made enough money. Kazan paints a portrait of the sacrifices every immigrant makes to live in the land of opportunity, or, as many of the Greeks referred to it, America America.
Why It Matters: The NFR cites the film as Kazan’s “personal favorite”, and gives a shoutout to cinematographer Haskell Wexler and art director Gene Callahan.
But Does It Really?: “America America” isn’t Elia Kazan’s greatest film, nor his most memorable, but it is definitely his most personal. Not only does Kazan as a filmmaker get to explore his own roots, but he does so on a grand scale, from the on-location shooting to the detailed authenticity of the costumes and sets. You could never make this kind of movie without a director of Kazan’s clout, and the results, while a bit tedious at times, is still an impressive, admirable feat. A respectful pass for “America America” and its NFR inclusion.
Everybody Gets One: After months of trying to find a young unknown actor to play Stavros (including a young unknown Peter Falk!), Elia Kazan tried a new approach: he went to Athens, visited the office of director Daniel Bourla, and singled out an apprentice sweeping Bourla’s office floor. The apprentice was Stathis Giallellis, who, despite speaking virtually no English, possessed the “desperation” Kazan was looking for in Stavros. Kazan brought Giallellis to New York, spent a month coaching him in acting and English, and eventually gave him the lead after his successful audition reading a scene from “Golden Boy”.
Wow, That’s Dated: While some of the cast (primarily Stathis Giallelis) are Greek or of Greek descent, others are definitely not. Frank Wolff is of German descent, John Marley is Russian-Jewish, and Estelle Hemsley is African-American. I’ll repeat that last part: Kazan cast an African-American woman in his Greek movie and thought no one would notice.
Seriously, Oscars?: A critical hit upon release, “America America” received four Academy Award nominations. The film lost Picture and Director to the night’s big winner “Tom Jones”, and Original Screenplay to fellow NFR entry “How the West Was Won”. “America America” did, however, win the Oscar for Art Direction.
- “America America” is based on Kazan’s family, specifically the tribulations of his uncle, Avraam Elia. Kazan was born in Constantinople in 1909, roughly 10 years after the events of this movie, and immigrated to America circa 1917. To prepare for the film, Kazan interviewed his parents to ensure accuracy in his portrayal of the family. Kazan was so determined to make this film, he resigned as director of the Acting Studio to focus entirely on production.
- I wonder how much the foreign film craze of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s had on influencing this movie. After the Foreign Language Oscar was officially made a category in 1956, there was a definite uptick in foreign films getting wider American releases, among them the 1960 Greek film “Never on Sunday”. This all must have made “America America” an easier sell to Warner Bros.
- The movie’s big claim to fame is that it was shot almost entirely on location in Turkey and Greece. It definitely helps with the overall scope of the movie. A handful of scenes were shot in California, most notably the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Bishop.
- Perhaps it’s the on-location shooting, but everyone in this movie is dubbed all the time. Was the sound equipment loaded onto the wrong plane?
- Shoutout to Estelle Hemsley, the African-American actress who, and I can’t stress this enough, is cast as a Greek woman in this movie. Fun Fact: She was also in “The Leech Woman”!
- Obviously, a movie like this is going to be episodic, but man does the Abdul plot line go on forever. We get it, he’s conning Stavros. Move on please. I actually applauded when they finally killed him off.
- As the author of a film blog named after the horse’s head scene in “The Godfather”, I am required by law to point out any movie that features John Marley. Here, Marley plays Garabet, the man Stavros meets while living on the streets who tells him about “small money” and “big money”. Marley’s naturally craggy features blend in with the surroundings of Constantinople.
- In this movie Paul Mann plays Aleko Sinnikoglou, who arranges for the main character to marry his daughter. You know him best for his performance in “Fiddler on the Roof” as Lazar Wolf, who arranges to marry the main character’s daughter. What an oddly specific type Mann excelled at playing.
- Side note: Paul Mann looks a lot like Robert Altman, doesn’t he?
- I must say Stathis Giallelis is very good in this. His Stavros goes from youthful optimism to older cynicism in a naturally subtle way. I suspect this is how Giallelis missed out on an Oscar nomination: it’s too subtle, you can’t “see” the acting.
- This is another movie where I didn’t take a lot of notes; I was just watching the movie and seeing where it took me. I was willing to forgive the film’s slower moments because it is apparent throughout that “America America” is Kazan’s passion project.
- Kazan pulls an Orson Welles and narrates the end credits, giving shoutouts to his main crew members, as well as the cast.
- Allegedly, “America America” was part one of a trilogy Kazan planned on making. As best I can tell neither of those two remaining parts were ever written or filmed, though Kazan’s next feature – 1969’s “The Arrangement” – also center on a Greek-American character. Kazan even uses footage from “America America” to show his main character coming to America.
- Kazan’s film career was near an end by the mid-60s, and he only made a few more films, most notably the 1976 adaptation of “The Last Tycoon” with Robert De Niro.