Monday, 15 April 2013

A Letter to Elia by Martin Scorsese

I can safely say the last time I watched the annual Academy Awards ceremony was in 1999. It was the year the Academy awarded the lifetime achievement Oscar to writer, producer, director Elia Kazan. As Kazan made his way centre stage to be presented with the award by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, the response from the attending film community was decidedly mixed. Warren Beaty clearly emotional stood and clapped, Steven Spielberg offered polite applause but remained seated, while Ed Harris and Nick Nolte sat stone-faced and arms folded, in no uncertain terms at odds with the Academy honouring a man who appeared as a "friendly" witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. For such a carefully stage-managed event, the Academy Awards has had a number of memorable gaffes and slips over the years, but Kazan's snub was one of show's most sour moments. At the time I was only vaguely aware of the Hollywood Blacklist controversy, but I still feel (as I did in 1999) that Kazan's treatment was shabby and he fully deserved the Oscar for his contribution to American Cinema.

A Letter to Elia, Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones' 2010 documentary about Kazan, only briefly mentions the Blacklist by way of an excerpt taken from Kazan's 1988 autobiography A Life (read by Elias Koteas) but position it as a defining moment not only in Kazan's personal life but in his film making life also. It was after 1952, the year Kazan appeared before HUAC, that the director made his most important films - among them On The Waterfront, East of Eden, A Face In The Crowd, Wild River and America America. A Letter to Elia continues in the vein of previous Scorsese documentaries, A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy; rather than a definitive career overview of Kazan, Scorsese discusses the director's films in the context of his own life - he saw in On The Waterfront the same streetwise toughs of his Little Italy neighborhood, and considered his difficult relationship with his brother in the light of East of Eden, a film Scorsese "stalked", obsessively following it around theatres in New York in the mid-50's. It's surprisingly frank stuff with Scorsese evidently reliving some awkward memories and emotions. That Scorsese was chosen to present Kazan with the Lifetime Achievement award was no coincidence, in the documentary Scorsese remembers first meeting Kazan in the 60's when he was in film school. Much later when Scorsese was a famous director he and Kazan become good friends, but Scorsese admits that he could never reveal to Kazan how he felt about his films. Instead he put it in a letter.

A Letter to Elia is a fascinating film, Scorsese's passion for Kazan's films is infectious and has awakened my own interest in Kazan. I've begun reading A Life (and I'll be first to admit that Kazan was a sonofabitch) and in the next few weeks I hope to catch screenings of A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden and A Face In The Crowd, and pick up the Blu-Rays of Panic In the Streets and On the Waterfront. A Letter to Elia can be currently seen by US readers on the PBS website while readers in the UK and Ireland can catch the film on Film4.

No comments:

Post a Comment