Martin Scorsese's paean to Elia Kazan
As a young boy growing up in the Bronx, Martin Scorsese was moved by director Elia Kazan's "On the Waterfront" (1954) and "East of Eden" (1955). Now in London shooting "Hugo Cabret," Scorsese took time out this weekend to discuss his new Kazan documentary, "A Letter to Elia," which premieres Monday night on PBS' "American Masters" series. (It airs at 9 p.m. on KCET.)
The one-hour documentary, which Scorsese co-wrote and directed with Kent Jones, is a valentine to the director. Like Scorsese, Kazan was known even in his early films for getting some terrific performances from his actors — even though he was unhappy in the studio system (he came to Fox in 1945 to make “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”).
Kazan "really didn’t know how to make a film," Scorsese said. "The cameraman would set up the shot, and the producer helped shape the picture. But where he excelled was with the actors. That is what makes 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' last and endure — Peggy Ann Garner, Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Joan Blondell."
"It’s a very modern film and very moving. But he wasn’t very happy from what he writes about in his autobiography and knowing him a little. He wasn’t happy because he wasn’t utilizing all the tools of filmmaking," Scorsese said.
"Finally, it was in 'Panic in the Streets,' it opened up a bit," Scorsese added, referring to Kazan's 1950 film about a doctor and a policeman trying to stop a plague in New Orleans. Kazan was able to shoot on location in the Big Easy and use actual residents not just as extras but also in small roles, which gave it an authenticity not seen in his sound-stage bound films.
"Very often in 'Panic in the Streets,' and in 'Boomerang!' to a certain extent, but later on with 'On the Waterfront' and all of those pictures after, you can’t quite tell who is an actor and who is a person he put in the frame," Scorsese said, noting that the faces that populated the movie looked like his neighbors on Elizabeth Street in the Bronx.
"In terms of filmmaking, there is no doubt he came into his own with 'On the Waterfront,' and in a sense became probably the first really independent filmmaker, building all the way up to 'America, America.' And it’s interesting: The last 25 years of his life, he didn’t make any more films. ... He had the ability to write very, very well, and that is where he put his creativity. ... He found he had more control on the page."
The full interview is in Monday's Calendar section.
— Susan King
Photo: Elia Kazan, right, embraces Martin Scorsese after receiving an honorary Oscar in 1999. Credit: Paul Morse / Los Angeles Times.