In 1999, four years before his death at age ninety-four, a shaky-looking Elia Kazan appeared on prime-time television to receive an honorary Oscar. To many watching at home, Kazan’s brief turn was an obligatory detour on the way to what proved that year’s main event, the upset victory of Shakespeare in Love over Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as Best Picture. Most American moviegoers don’t know most film directors’ names, and Kazan had not made a film in more than twenty years.
Even so, the moment caused more of a stir than was usual for such pro forma industry rites. When Kazan came on stage after an introduction by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (who had starred in Kazan’s final film, The Last Tycoon, in 1976), the reaction shots of the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion exposed the public to the half-century-old cold war conflict that the impending award had reawakened in Hollywood. Many down front rose for a standing ovation, including Warren Beatty, whose stardom was catalyzed by Kazan (in the 1961 Splendor in the Grass) and whose film Reds had appeared in 1981. But others, most conspicuously the acting nominees Ed Harris and Nick Nolte, stayed seated and glowered in protest over Kazan’s notorious naming of names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. Still others straddled a middle path, among them Spielberg, who applauded Kazan but remained in his seat.
Scorsese was and is Kazan’s most prominent and fervent champion. As a prime mover in the campaign to get him an honorary Oscar, he no doubt thought he was giving Kazan the credit due him. But Kazan had already won two statuettes as Best Director, for Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and On the Waterfront (1954), so he didn’t need a consolation prize that had been given late in life to those like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Robert Altman who were snubbed by the Academy in their artistic prime. The unintended consequence of this bonus Oscar was to shine a klieg light on Kazan’s HUAC testimony—elevating it once more to the top of his public profile, getting it more publicity at that moment than any of his films.
A decade later Scorsese would mount another Kazan tribute, a highly personal American Masters documentary for PBS titled A Letter to Elia. It makes the case for Kazan as “one of the most important figures in the history of movies,” both as a peerless director of actors and as a visionary American exponent of postwar Italian neorealism, by focusing on three films that were formative for Scorsese as a young moviegoer: On the Waterfront, East of Eden (1955), and America America (1963), Kazan’s autobiographical independent film inspired by his Anatolian Greek family’s passage from Turkey to America. (Kazan was born in Constantinople…
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