Farewell: Martin Scorsese pays tribute to Elia Kazan
When I was 12 years old, I was finally allowed to go to the movies by myself. I went to the Loews Commodore, a few blocks away from St. Patrick’s grammar school, right there in my neighborhood. For me, it was a place where I could escape from reality, a place where I could dream. It was also the place where I saw On the Waterfront when it opened in 1954. It felt quite different from most of the other American films I’d seen up to that point. I would never have put it this way at the time, but I realize now that it was a breakthrough, emotionally and psychologically, into a new, stylized vision of reality.
I remember seeing Kazan’s name on the screen, and how strange and exotic it seemed – Elia. Afterward, whenever I saw the name on the opening credits of a film, I really paid attention to what I was watching – East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd, Wild River – the look of these films, the sense of atmosphere, the way people spoke, the way they moved, was entirely new. Kazan’s films had an enormous impact on the way movies were made, I think. They extended the limits of what was emotionally and psychologically possible. They represented the beginnings of what you could call the modern style of American moviemaking, and they led the way to John Cassavetes, and, beyond that, to the independent movement of today.
As for my own work, it’s almost impossible to say how deeply I was affected by Kazan’s films. The way I look and listen, during shooting and throughout the editing process, the way I judge a take, a line reading, a reaction, is informed by his influence. Kazan’s pictures taught me that you have to be tough, even ruthless, in the search for emotional truth.
Over the last 15 years or so, I got to know Kazan. Occasionally, we would get together with our families. It was difficult for me to convey to him how great an influence he’d had on me and on my work. I only hope I can repay the debt I owe him through the work I do. (Kazan died of natural causes in New York City.)