Martin Scorsese’s passionate and scholarly tribute to Elia Kazan, co-directed with Kent Jones, screens Monday at the New York Film Festival with a new print of Kazan’s “America, America” (1963), and airs Oct. 4 as part of PBS’s “American Masters.” The filmmaker shares his youthful obsession with Mr. Kazan, whose classic films like “East of Eden” and “On the Waterfront” would powerfully inform his work, but also explores the complex and untenable circumstances of Mr. Kazan’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952—a point of no return in his life, after which he made his greatest, and most personal, films.
“Marty got to know Kazan pretty well,” said Mr. Jones, former associate director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and executive director of the World Cinema Foundation, the film preservation non-profit that Mr. Scorsese founded in 2007. Yet, as Mr. Scorsese observes early on in “Letter,” he was never able to tell the man he admired just how much he admired his films. “Influence is a big word,” Mr. Jones said. “When you’re watching that movie, you’re not thinking about camera angles or how good the performances are or how it’s structured—it’s speaking to you. That’s what happened with Marty with Kazan’s films.”
The hourlong film takes its cue from Kazan’s 1973 address to his students at Wesleyan University, in which he answers the question: what kind of person should a film director be? “A very thick skin,” Mr. Scorsese quotes Kazan. “A very sensitive soul.”
Though it traces Mr. Kazan’s life—from his emergent days as an actor and then prominent stage director whose Actor’s Studio incubated method acting and fostered the careers of Marlon Brando and James Dean—”Letter” centers on Mr. Scorsese’s intimate analysis of scenes from “East of Eden,” “On the Waterfront” and “America, America.”
The insights amount to a master class in American cinema, making Brando’s celebrated “I coulda been a contender” speech from “Waterfront” sting anew with its broken-hearted vulnerability.
“We didn’t want to show every movie that he made,” Mr. Jones said. “We knew we wanted to dwell on two movies and then spend some time hanging out with a couple of others.”
Significantly, the films that won Mr. Scorsese’s heart were the ones Mr. Kazan made after he identified eight friends as members of the Communist Party, an act that made him a pariah until his death at age 93.
“We see in the movie it was enormously destructive. He had his back against the wall,” Mr. Jones said. “People say he was the one person who could have withstood it, well I’m glad you’re so sure. Watching the Oscars [in 1999, when Kazan was given an honorary Academy Award] and seeing all these people sitting on their hands. Wow. You’re really sure if you were alive back then you would have behaved differently?”
Patricia Bosworth, who first was a student of Kazan’s at the Actor’s Studio and later became a close friend, often spoke with him about the decision. She had a personal connection. Her father, Bartley Cavanaugh Crum, represented the blacklisted Hollywood 10, but also became an informer.
“I think it really did change his entire life,” said Ms. Bosworth, who has published biographies of Diane Arbus, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando.
She is one of subjects interviewed by Mr. Jones in a companion documentary, “Reflecting on Kazan,” that also airs on PBS. “But he was able to be honest about it, and that also deepened him.”
Less difficult, and much to the heartfelt testimony of Mr. Scorsese, is the appreciation of Mr. Kazan’s films. Though the director brings a sensitive eye to his discussion, Mr. Jones has his own favorites—including a film that is not usually applauded: “The Last Tycoon” (1976).
“I see the flaws in it very clearly, but find it extremely moving and unusual,” Mr. Jones said. “It was [producer] Sam Spiegel’s idea to have Harold Pinter adapt Fitzgerald. Just the wackiest idea in the history of cinema. And I can’t think of two more disparate temperaments than throwing Elia Kazan into the mix. Kazan and Pinter, like warring universes.”