The Elia Kazan Collection (Fox)
To call this exhaustive box set a labor of love from Martin Scorsese risks understating its importance to Scorsese. The filmmaker cineaste and film preservation activist is overflowing with labors of love. And while in some ways this is a celebration of one director’s tremendous legacy in the American cinema, it’s also a gift from a child of the fifties to a man he identifies as a father figure solely because of his cinema.
Along with the fifteen films in the set, Scorsese contributes a personal tribute to the director with a new documentary. The hour-long A Letter to Elia, written and directed by Scorsese and Kent Jones and narrated by Scorsese, is not a conventional survey of the director and his work or a simple tribute from another admiring director. This is a first-person reflection on the films and the creator, a mix of history, biography and aesthetic appreciation informed by the personal connection that one can have with films. Scorsese explores the powerful connection he made with Kazan’s art and vision, especially On the Waterfront, which Scorsese remarks was set in the urban New York world he lived in, and East of Eden, two formative films in Scorsese’s coming-of-age as an artist and a person: “It spoke to me in a way that no one else I knew in my life seemed to be able to,” he says of Eden. “The more I saw the picture, the more I became aware of the presence of an artist behind the picture.”
The portrait does survey Kazan’s life, his education as an actor in the Group Theater and his work on stage as a director and a member of the Actor’s Studio in addition to his Hollywood work, and Scorsese does delve into the most controversial moment of Kazan’s career: naming names to avoid the blacklist, and the various reasons he offered for his actions. Scorsese neither defends nor condemns his actions or his reasons, but he does look at how the ordeal affected his art and the films he made directly after the hearings, beginning with On the Waterfront. Kazan (in an archival interview) proclaims that they are his personal films, “they came out of me,” and Scorsese agrees: “If you’re talking about the work, the art, this is a moment when a director became a filmmaker. Ultimately, a great filmmaker.” Scorsese ultimately met Kazan and became his friend, and he talks of the honorary Oscar for Kazan and his determination to be there on stage to support him in the face of the animosity still around from the blacklist. But in many ways this film is Scorsese’s way to tell Kazan what he couldn’t when he was alive: what his films and his art and his explication of the adult world to the young Scorsese meant to him as a director and as a person.
The disc also features the 20-minutes featurette “Reflecting on Kazan, directed by Kent Jones and featuring interviews with actors Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn, Lois Smith, Robert DeNiro, Eli Wallach and Alec Baldwin, director Ulu Grosbad (a former assistant director to Kazan), author Patricia Bosworth, and Kazan’s daughter Frances Kazan.
As for the films, Martin Scorsese personally selects the 15 Elia Kazan features (from Warner Bros. and Sony as well as 20th Century Fox) in this lavish collection, from his 1945 directorial debut A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to his autobiographical America, America (1963). Both of these films make their respective DVD debuts in this set, as do three other films: Viva Zapata! (1952) with Marlon Brando as the Mexican revolutionary, the cold-war drama Man on a Tightrope (1953) with Fredric March, and the superb Wild River (1960) with Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick and Jo Van Fleet. The 18-disc set is filled out with the previously-released Boomerang!, Gentleman’s Agreement, Pinky, Panic in the Streets, On The Waterfront, Baby Doll, A Face In The Crowd, Splendor in the Grass and two-disc editions of A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden. There are a lot of Oscar winners and nominations in this collection, and plenty of heavyweight performances that did not get Oscar gold. Steeped in The Method, he was sensitive to actors and performance in a way different than other Hollywood directors and Broadway transplants. I can’t begin to do justice the Kazan’s career here—I direct you to Dave Kehr’s superb piece in The New York Times—but I can confirm that this is a magnificent set and it features all the supplements of their earlier DVD releases: commentary on numerous films, the feature-length documentary Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey, original featurettes and archival material.
An 11 x 7 ½ inch book holds the discs in sturdy pockets and it shares a slipsleeve with a hardcover gift book with notes and stills from the films. This is the vying to be the DVD gift set of the season for classic film lovers.