Martin Scorsese on Elia Kazan

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

As a kid growing up asthmatic and poor in the Bronx, Martin Scorsese took refuge in movie theaters. When he was about 12, the future director of “The Departed,” “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” saw Elia Kazan’s Academy Award-winning masterpiece “On the Waterfront,” a gritty drama shot on the streets of Hoboken, N.J., about dock workers that starred Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger and Karl Malden.

The following year, 1955, he went to see Kazan’s “East of Eden,” which marked James Dean’s first starring role, as a troubled young man with a “good” twin brother and a judgmental father. The realistic, strong acting and the themes of brotherhood and betrayal spoke volumes to him, because Scorsese had a difficult relationship with his older brother.

Over the years, he got to know Kazan, who died in 2003 at age 94. Scorsese was also his biggest supporter when it was announced in 1999 that Kazan would receive an honorary Oscar even though he had named names during the communist witch hunt of the early 1950s.


Now, Scorsese has co-written and directed with Kent Jones a documentary, “A Letter to Elia,” that screens Monday on PBS’ “American Masters” and will be included in the massive Kazan DVD set being released Nov. 9 from Fox.

Scorsese, who is in London making “Hugo Cabret,” talked about “Letter to Elia” over the phone Sunday.

“Letter to Elia” is actually much more about you than Kazan.

In a way, it evolved into the film that you saw. Originally, we were going to make a film about Elia Kazan -- his work, his importance as an artist and all that came with it, emphasizing the creative aspects of his life. As we started to make the picture and put it together, we thought, “Should we discuss all the films, should we go through the entire career? What about the theater?” I was too young to see the theater; I didn’t even know about it. And so ultimately, when we started to put it all together, we looked at it and I said, “What am I saying here that hasn’t already been said or couldn’t be explained and analyzed by others, particularly film critics, writers who are great admirers of his? What am I adding that’s different?” Ultimately, it came down to the two films and the power of art to change people.

You discuss in the documentary how much “On the Waterfront” seemed like your life. It is remarkable when you look at the movie, it almost looks like a neorealist Italian film.

It does, but Boris Kaufman’s cinematography ... it has this beauty to it. At the same time, it is almost like the camera was with me in the streets and in the apartments. For me, growing up in Elizabeth Street ... it looked exactly like where we were growing up.


The performances in “On the Waterfront” -- especially the scene between Brando and Rod Steiger in the taxi cab, the “I coulda been a contender” scene -- are still so fresh and powerful.

It is powerful and it’s always very moving, the two of them in that scene. It’s amazing. It became part of our foundation for all the work we knew -- myself, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel. It was, I don’t know, how should I put? It became a touchstone of our sense of what is truthful in art.

James Dean’s staggering, emotional performance in ‘East of Eden” -- talk about what is truthful in art. I especially adore his tender love scene with Julie Harris on the Ferris wheel.

That was beautiful. And how the lynch mob mentality -- how that all builds up attacking the German immigrant. Watch how that is orchestrated. Kazan had such command of filmmaking itself, all the elements, and that is a great sequence to study with editing and music, lighting, camerawork.

Do you feel Kazan is underrated when it comes to his visual style? Everybody talks about his ability to work with actors, but they fail to mention the style of his films.

“East of Eden,” if you see it on the big screen, it looks like photographs of the period. He had an eye -- the way Robert Frank’s book “The Americans” had an eye -- for Americana. Whether it’s “On the Waterfront,” “Boomerang!,” “Panic in the Streets,” “East of Eden” and “Splendor in the Grass” -- if you look at that again on the big screen, it’s a beautiful film.