Finally, an essential DVD box set. On November 9, the Elia Kazan Film Collection, an 18-disc treasure chest including 15 works by the American master, son of Greek rug merchants, will be available from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Included is a bonus disc, "Letter to Elia," by Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones.
The set includes two of his best never before released on DVD: Kazan's debut feature A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) and Wild River (1960) plus three essential Marlon Brando performances: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952) and On the Waterfront (1954). The other films are: Boomerang! (1947), Gentlemen's Agreement (1947), Pinky (1949), Panic in the Streets (1950), Man on a Tightrope (1953), East of Eden (1955) -- Scorsese's favorite Kazan, starring James Dean as Cal in the update of the Cain-and-Abel story, -- Baby Doll (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Splendor in the Grass (1961), the film debut of Warren Beatty, and America, America (1963). With the exception of The Last Tycoon (1976), which is not included, the set represents his best films. At $199.98, it is pricey, but it works out to about $13 a title, and most of these are films that are infinitely watchable. This is a desert-island collection.
Kazan, who died in 2003 at the age of 94, was a prolific stage and film director famous for radicalizing American acting and infamous for naming members of the Communist Party during the McCarthy era. He launched the careers of many actors, most significantly Brando, Karl Malden, Dean and Beatty. And he elicited the finest performances of Vivien Leigh (Streetcar), Patricia Neal (Face) and Natalie Wood (Splendor). One way to measure the onetime actor's impact on American acting is that in 19 movies, 21 of his actors earned Oscar nominations and nine took home statuettes. A famous cross-pollinator, between 1940 and 1970 Kazan buzzed between Broadway and Hollywood, introducing emotional realism to the screen and sexual candor to the stage. You can practically smell the characters in his movies: They are saturated with blood, sweat and fear.
In Hollywood, Kazan cut his teeth on issue films such as Gentlemen's Agreement and Pinky, respectively exploring anti-Semitism and racism in America. But his most enduring works are the family portraits A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Streetcar, Waterfront, Eden and Splendor. To these titles I'd add Face in the Crowd and Wild River as the essential Kazans, but I'm very fond of Panic in the Streets and Wild River for Kazan's inimitable way of setting human characters off against the American landscape.