NEW YORK — More than 500 of stage and screen's most influential figures gathered at the Waldorf Astoria Monday night to pay tribute to director Elia Kazan for his "incalculable" contribution to the art of film.
"You are the head of a family of grateful actors and directors and designers that is probably bigger than you realize," Dustin Hoffman told Kazan, while an audience that included Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Shelley Winters, Liv Ullmann, Teresa Wright, Jo Van Fleet, Michael Douglas, Robert Benton, Sydney Pollack, Alan J. Pakula, Bob Fosse, Arthur Penn, Robert Anderson, Sidney Kingsley, Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer listened.
"And we cannot calculate the way you have affected us or the energy you have given us," Hoffman told the 77-year-old director at a benefit dinner sponsored by the new American Museum of the Moving Image.
Although Hoffman himself has never worked with Kazan, the actor recalled how he had been "shaken so strongly" on seeing Kazan's "On the Waterfront" as a 16-year-old that acting suddenly became an option for him. In college, he said, he and a few fellow hopeful actors considered "jumping over the fence" onto a Kazan movie set in hopes that their fresh talents would be discovered and used by the director.
"Cut to this evening, and I am sitting at a table with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro--and we have never sat at the same table before--and with Tom Cruise, and when he's our age, we will all be dead . . . and then I look around the room and see Sidney Lumet and Sydney Pollack and Alan Pakula, and also Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer, and I think all of us are climbing over the fence, saying, ' Please work with us, do another film, find a way for us to work with you,' " Hoffman said.
(Hoffman was standing in for Warren Beatty, whose role in Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass," launched the young actor's career, but who was unable to attend due to the death of his father over the weekend.)
A giant collage of all of Kazan's film titles served as more than a stage backdrop: It provided a reminder of the classic works the director also staged for Broadway--"Death of a Salesman," "The Skin of Our Teeth," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Sweet Bird of Youth," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Tea and Sympathy."
"His is the pioneering contribution of one person that allowed feelings to be in the movies," said director Sidney Lumet, the subject of a similar tribute last year.
Clips from some of Kazan's most noted films underscored his contribution to the cinema. Among the selections were "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," Kazan's first major film as a director, in 1945; "Gentleman's Agreement" and "On the Waterfront," both of which earned Kazan Academy Awards; "A Streetcar Named Desire"; "East Of Eden"; "Splendor in the Grass"; "A Face in the Crowd"; "Baby Doll"; "America, America," from a screenplay based on Kazan's autobiographical novel, and "The Last Tycoon" (1976), the last film directed by Kazan.
Several of the actors most often associated with Kazan's work participated in the tribute, including Eva Marie Saint and Kim Hunter, each of whom won an Oscar under Kazan's direction for "On the Waterfront" and "A Streetcar Named Desire," respectively.
Ellen Burstyn, appearing in her role as artistic director of the Famed Actors Studio co-founded by Kazan, said, referring to the actor who is perhaps most associated with the director: "Marlon (Brando) is not here because he is Marlon," but he has "sent his best wishes."
"Truthfully, I don't know how to respond, or what to say," said Kazan, after being greeted by a standing ovation at the conclusion of Monday's program. "I am so touched . . . it's like a reunion. . . . I don't know how I lived through all of this. How did I survive?" he added, gazing up at the staggering number of titles on the stage backdrop.
"All I can say is, I too hope I can make one more film before I go over."