September Highlights on TCM
DIRECTED BY ELIA KAZAN (September 7, 6am - 8pm)--On September 7, TCM is paying a birthday tribute to Elia Kazan--he would have been 108. I've covered Kazan and his films many times in this column over the years. There are a few reasons for that, the most obvious of which is that he was a giant, one of our greatest directors. And then, on a personal level, he had a profound effect on me as a filmmaker and, in the last few years of his life, as a human being. Actually, we had met when I was a student at Washington Square College back in the 60s--I wanted to work as his on-set assistant and, of course, to show him my script. He said no to both, and I was crushed at the time but in the end it was a good thing: I held him in such reverence that I would have been a terrible assistant, and he let me know by example that the best thing I could do for myself was to find my own way. I realize that he's a controversial figure to some because of his friendly testimony before HUAC, but there's no denying that he was a giant: this was the man that started the Actors' Studio and transformed American theatre and cinema at the same time, and he accomplished almost all of it after the testimony. Stanley Kubrick once told Michel Ciment that Kazan was "without question, the best director we have in America," and he wasn't alone. Cassavetes revered him. So did Francis Coppola, who wanted to cast him in the role that Lee Strasberg played so brilliantly in The Godfather Part II. I was an adolescent when I saw On the Waterfront and East of Eden, again and again. They spoke to me directly, and they helped me to really see what movies could do. That's why I made a film about him, called A Letter to Elia. His effect on me was that profound. TCM isn't showing On the Waterfront or East of Eden as part of this tribute, but they are showing A Face in the Crowd, a picture that has been coming up a lot these days for reasons that need no elaboration from me. They're showing Splendor in the Grass, which has one of the most remarkable and delicate final passages in American cinema. And they're showing America, America, which is probably his most personal film. Kazan based the picture on the story of his uncle, who stopped short of nothing, no matter how ruthless, to get out of Greece and make the passage to America. This picture meant so much to me when I was young, because I was leaving the old world too, as it had been recreated on the lower east side of Manhattan. It may seem difficult now to recall just how much this country meant to people, or the stark divisions between the old and new worlds. Those feelings are incarnated in this extraordinary handmade epic from a one-of-a-kind film artist, Elia Kazan.
by Martin Scorsese