The complete trajectory of Elia Kazan’s career can now be seen— and owned— by film buffs and fans alike, in the boxed set called The Elia Kazan Collection. The set brings together 15 Kazan films and is packaged beautifully with Martin Scorsese’s personal tribute to Kazan— “A Letter to Elia.”
Kazan was an Anatolian Greek, born to ethnic Greek parents who lived in Constantinople, then ruled by the Ottoman Turks. He emigrated to America at the age of four and rose to become one of the most important directors of the 20th century.
Not only did Kazan help revolutionize the theater, he forever changed the movies, ushering in a whole new era of screen acting. He worked with the holy trinity of Method actors — Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean — and launched the careers of Warren Beatty, Lee Remick and Eva Marie Saint.
It’s a terrific collection anchored by some of the most mythic performances in film history: Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando again in On the Waterfront and, of course, Dean in East of Eden.
Read below The New York Times review of the boxed set, which includes Kazan’s classic America America, a tribute to his uncle, a Greek immigrant to the United States, which includes the epic scene of his kissing of the soil upon his arrival at Ellis Island.
Creating Stars and Enemies
By Dave Kehr
MARTIN SCORSESE might be the only film buff alive with both the clout and the passion to put together “The Elia Kazan Collection,” a boxed set that assembles 15 Kazan films from three distributors. Though 20th Century Fox Home Video is releasing the collection — Fox controls eight of the films in the set (four of which are appearing on DVD for the first time) — it also includes important Kazan films from Sony (“On the Waterfront”) and Warner Brothers (“East of Eden,” but also “Baby Doll,” “A Face in the Crowd,” “Splendor in the Grass” and “America America,” making its DVD debut).
And leading off the set is Mr. Scorsese’s very personal tribute to Kazan, “A Letter to Elia,” which Mr. Scorsese wrote and directed with Kent Jones for the PBS series “American Masters.” The whole enterprise, which includes a 100-page book of photographs and production notes, represents an act of high-level diplomacy that suggests Mr. Scorsese is the Otto von Bismarck of the movie world.
The French critic Serge Daney once observed that Kazan’s real contribution to the cinema wasn’t so much the individual movies he made as the new generation of stars he created. Beginning perhaps with Montgomery Clift (whom Kazan directed in the Broadway premiere of Thornton Wilder’s “Skin of Our Teeth” in 1942), Kazan presided over a group of performers who changed the nature of American acting. Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty, Carroll Baker, Julie Harris, Rip Torn, Eli Wallach, Martin Balsam, Lee Remick, Eva Marie Saint, Andy Griffith and countless others found their artistic identities under Kazan’s direction, which embraced the psychological complexity of Method acting while backing away from its bombast.
For many the Method has come to mean bulging eyes, throbbing veins and bellowing rage. But Kazan’s direction was more frequently distinguished by the shyness and uncertainty he revealed in his performers, who often seem to be turning away from the audience and into themselves.
Kazan’s touch is immediately evident with his first feature, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945, and previously unavailable on American DVD). Working from Betty Smith’s best-selling novel about her impoverished Williamsburg childhood, Kazan took a tremendous chance by casting James Dunn as the charming but ineffectual head of the family.
Dunn, an outgoing New York Irishman who had been a major star at Fox in the early 30s (notably in Frank Borzage’s “Bad Girl” and Raoul Walsh’s “Sailor’s Luck”), had by this point in his career been reduced to Poverty Row productions because of a serious drinking problem.
Kazan’s direction judiciously draws on Dunn’s still functioning charisma (his character is the best-liked, least-employed man in his neighborhood), his personal history (his character is an alcoholic, whose dreams of becoming a music hall star have collapsed because of his problem) and a new kind of interiority (Dunn needs no dialogue to express his anguish and tragic resolve when, on a fateful Christmas Eve, he looks at his sleeping daughter and realizes he will never be able to give her the education she deserves). A seamless combination of canny professionalism and private confession, Dunn’s performance is all but unbearably poignant and earned him a richly deserved Oscar for best supporting actor.
It would be the first of 9 Oscars (and 21 nominations) won by actors under Kazan’s direction, and he would receive Oscars for his own work on “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) and “On the Waterfront” (1954). Yet when the Academy’s board of directors voted him an honorary Oscar in 1999 for lifetime achievement, there were demonstrations outside the auditorium and deep divisions inside. Kazan’s decision to name names in his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 remained a source of bitterness in a film industry permanently traumatized by the anti-Communist witch hunts of the cold war.
“On the Waterfront,” with its story of a soulful longshoreman (Marlon Brando) who testifies against the mobsters who have taken over his union, is often viewed as Kazan’s attempt to justify his actions. Yet the figure of the informer, and scenes of brutal betrayal, had haunted Kazan’s work for years, from the waitress who accuses an ex-lover of murder in the documentary-style crime drama “Boomerang!” (1947) to the legions of Judas figures who surround Brando’s Christlike revolutionary in “Viva Zapata!” (1952). Could Kazan’s testimony have been as much a consequence of his personal pathology as his politics?
Whatever its root cause, Kazan’s public enactment of this primal scene of treason seems to have liberated something in his art. This filmmaker, who once hid behind “important social themes” — the simplistic treatment of anti-Semitism in “Gentleman’s Agreement,” the self-canceling racial politics of “Pinky” (1949) — became eager to explore the most agonizingly intimate details of personal relationships.
Betrayal remains a central theme in “Baby Doll” (1956), a rustic sex farce as imagined by Tennessee Williams, and is both interpersonal and political in the prophetic 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd” (starring Andy Griffith as a radio performer with demagogic instincts). But the archetypical Kazan scene becomes the fumbling intimacies between inexperienced lovers: Brando and Eva Marie Saint in “On the Waterfront,” James Dean and Julie Harris in “East of Eden” (1955), Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in “Splendor in the Grass” (1961).
Both the boxed set and Mr. Scorsese’s documentary build toward “America America” (1963) as the pinnacle of Kazan’s achievement, and it is difficult not to be stirred by this nearly three-hour epic of immigration. Inspired by the story of Kazan’s uncle, an Anatolian Greek living under Turkish rule who came to America at the turn of the 20th century, the film insists on the ruthlessness (and frequent betrayals) of an intensely driven young man (Stathis Giallelis) as he burns through a succession of relatives, friends and even a sympathetic young fiancée (Linda Marsh) back home. By the time he steps off the ferry from Ellis Island, he is utterly alone, with only the ground of his new country to kiss.
But Kazan may never have made a more perfect film than “Wild River,” a perennially overlooked 1960 production, in color and CinemaScope. In some ways the film feels like a summation of Kazan’s career and concerns. The setting is the mythic American South of the Tennessee Williams films; the political context is the New Deal, which helped form Kazan as a young member of the Group Theater; and the stars are Montgomery Clift, one of the first actors he helped to establish, and Lee Remick, his recent discovery from “A Face in the Crowd.”
The big social themes are here too: Clift plays a field officer for the Tennessee Valley Authority sent to a small town in Alabama to chase a cranky old woman (Jo Van Fleet, Dean’s mother in “East of Eden”) off her island plantation, which the construction of a new hydroelectric dam will soon put underwater.
But so is that tender, tremulous Kazan sense of innocence and intimacy, as Clift, twitchy and vulnerable, comes together with Remick, playing the young widow who is the Van Fleet character’s granddaughter and the unacknowledged heir of her matriarchal authority.
Kazan’s women are often so strong as to be a bit frightening to his uncertain heroes (a theme already present in the relationship of James Dunn and Dorothy McGuire in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”). But here Remick’s power is both immense and benign. In an extraordinary scene, perhaps the longest in the movie, she proposes to him, offering herself as both wife and mother, partner and protector. In Kazan’s world of deceit and betrayal, she is presenting him with something exceptional: perfect trust, and the peace that comes with it. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)