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When Martin Scorsese completes his much-anticipated documentary about Elia Kazan, it will mark a curious juxtaposition: The man of the theater versus the visionary of the camera; the interpreter of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams versus the creator of such entirely original cinematic works as “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”; the insider-who-became-an-outsider versus the outsider who, four decades after making his first films, is now a Hollywood icon.
But the similarities are more numerous than they seem. For one thing, both were/are quintessential New Yorkers. (If Kazan’s work is not as closely associated with the city as Scorsese’s, that’s only because so much of it was done onstage.) For another, both were/are gifted craftsmen, an attention to detail that Scorsese has highlighted in pictures from “Cape Fear” to “The Departed.”
For third, both straddled an uneasy divide, working in Hollywood without being entirely of it. The irony of Kazan’s career was that the action that brought him closest to Hollywood — naming names in the McCarthy era — would ultimately push him far away; while Scorsese, kept away because his films were so dark, has finally been embraced precisely because of those pictures.
Now, he’s an elder statesman. Which poses its own challenges.
Few of America’s greatest directors have done their best work after receiving lifetime achievement honors, as Scorsese will this weekend when the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. gives him its Cecil B. DeMille Award; Clint Eastwood alone seems to have gotten better since receiving a slew of such trophies. Scorsese’s fans worry that the upcoming “Shutter Island” may indicate Scorsese is no longer doing the kind of non-mainstream work that defined him — though they are emphatically examples of the craft that Kazan also excelled at.
What will define Scorsese moving forward? The quick cutting he mastered has become a staple of everything from MTV to indie releases; the long tracking shots that were breathtaking in movies like “GoodFellas” have been widely imitated. The dark exploration of New York in his best-loved films seems like a thing of the past. Where does he go now?
Kazan’s third act came in the form of novels like “America, America” and “The Arrangement.” We are still waiting to see what Scorsese’s will be.
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