I was delighted to see the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announce that Francis Ford Coppola would receive the Irving G. Thalberg award (for "creative producers") and that actor Eli Wallach, "nouvelle vague" pioneer Jean-Luc Godard, and British historian-filmmaker-preservationist Kevin Brownlow would receive honorary Oscars.
What struck me immediately about the American award-winners was the vast influence of director Elia Kazan ("On the Waterfront," "Wild River," "Splendor in the Grass").
It was Kazan who gave Eli Wallach his start in movies with "Baby Doll" (1956). Before that erotic comedy classic screened at the AFI Silver in 2004, Wallach told me that a lot of movie directors "don't direct very much; they're concerned with technical aspects." But Kazan was just the opposite. He said to Wallach, "In the movies, people take all the time for things like lighting and costumes and makeup and decorating the set; then the director turns to the actor and says, `Action!' I don't work that way."
Guiding Wallach through a pivotal scene, Kazan said, "Now, you have to look at the ashes of the cotton gin. I want you to look at the ashes, just stand there with your back to the camera. And when you're as ready as all those technical people, turn around and we'll do a scene for the camera."
What's amazing about Francis Ford Coppola's admiration for Kazan as a creative force is that it survived even his knowledge that some people at Paramount had wanted to fire him and hire Kazan to make "The Godfather." Of course, Kazan's work with Brando led Coppola to cast him as Don Corleone in his Great American Movie. And, inspired by what he'd read about Kazan's work on the stage and film productions of "A Streetcar Named Desire," Coppola, on "The Godfather," carried around a notebook with annotated pages of the script and the original novel -- a practice he continued whenever he worked on adaptations. Coppola later begged Kazan to play Hyman Roth in "The Godfather Part II" when Lee Strasberg's inexperience as a movie actor threatened to undercut the role. (Coppola ended up rewriting the character to fit Strasberg's strengths, and Strasberg pulled off this critical part, superbly.)
Wallach will be sure to thank Kazan in his remarks. Do you think Coppola should, too?