For Martin Scorsese, growing up in Little Italy, seeing On the Waterfront and East of Eden as a young man was a life-changing experience. Scorsese appears on and off camera throughout A Letter to Elia, taking us through Kazan’s life and through his own as well, and through his growing realization that there was an artist behind the camera, someone “who knew me, maybe better than I knew myself.” The film is about being exposed to the right movies at the right moment in your adolescent life, when you’re wide open and ready to connect, to be spurred on by the work up there on the screen, and then, maybe, to chart a course toward making your own movies.
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Composed of clips, stills, readings from Kazan’s autobiography and his speech on directing (read by Elias Koteas), a videotaped interview done late in Kazan’s life, and Scorsese’s commentary on and offscreen, A Letter to Elia takes a close look at the life of art and its creation – the work, the distractions, the inspirations, the complications, the intersections between art and experience.
A Letter to Elia, written and directed by Scorsese and his longtime collaborator Kent Jones, is a deeply personal film, a frank portrait and self-portrait, and an equally frank acknowledgement of the closeness and the distance between artists and their art.
This American Masters full-length documentary on Kazan’s life is part of a collection of fifteen cinematic treasures by Kazan brought together by Martin Scorsese in The Elia Kazan Collection, available in the online Shop PBS.