Kazan and the Oscars and Us
Despite all the controversy stirred by the decision of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to give director Elia Kazan an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, Sundays 71st Academy Awards ceremony passed with no disruption and little commentary.
With the Academy controlled cameras showing only quick and partial glimpses of the audience, and awards presenters steering clear of any mention of Kazans naming names during his 1952 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, most of the audience for the nationally televised show likely made no sense of the sit in silence protest organized by elderly blacklisted lefties such as Bernard Gordon and Abraham Polonsky. Nonetheless, Hollywoods smoke and mirrors facade did not deliver the sentimental gushing that has greeted previous lifetime achievement winners.
Critic Roger Ebert, in post-awards comments, estimated that almost two-thirds of the audience inside LAs Dorothy Pavilion Center joined Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Jim Carey, and Steven Spielberg (all viewed sitting by Academy cameras) in refusing Kazan a warm and forgiving embrace. Organizers of the protest reported that almost 80 percent of the audience remained seated during the presentation. Clearly the Academys 39-member board (that voted unanimously to approve the award) miscalculated in assuming the movie industrys shameful and hypocritical blacklist war no longer matters. And as the Academy was forced to recall, for all his great and lasting achievements in film and theater, Kazan is still remembered as Hollywoods greatest stool pigeon.
For those who know Kazan only through films, he was briefly a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s while working in New Yorks Group Theater. Later, in 1947, with Cold War politics on the rise and suspected Communists known as the Hollywood Ten called up before HUAC, he pledged solidarity with the Ten and supported their legal defense. But as dozens of play and screenwriters, actors, and directors continued to parade before the committee, Kazans loyalties took a turn.
Appearing before HUAC in 1952, he named eight members of the Group Theater as Communists. J. Edward Bromberg, one of those named by Kazan, died of a heart attack after offering HUAC only unfriendly testimony. Tony Kuber, also named by Kazan, reportedly killed himself after refusing to testify. Augmenting his views and testimony, Kazan bought an ad in The New York Times declaring the Communist Party a dangerous and alien conspiracy.
Yet as Bernard Gordon recalls, it wasnt Kazans names or self-serving rhetoric that made him so reviled among the left. Days before the awards he explained, Kazan validated the committee and it meant they could continue the blacklist.
For those in the film industry, this meant at best, years without work or writing under an assumed name. For others, it meant the end of a career in film or theater. But most significantly, and for thousands more--labor and civil rights activists, teachers, journalists, folksingers and peaceniks--it meant a nationwide clampdown on ideas, rights, and organizing linked to progressive social change.
Kazan, of course, has too small a role in the anti-communist drama of the 1950s to be blamed for undermining the American Left of his time. But as one of the most influential, respected, and socially conscious directors of the postwar years, Kazan had enormous artistic and political stature. He brought the now famous Method school of acting into vogue through his work with Marlon Brando and James Dean. In 1948 he won a best director Oscar for "Gentlemans Agreement," a film attacking anti-semitism. His Broadway productions of Death Of A Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire were hailed as masterpieces. Remembering Kazans influence on film and conscience in the early 1950s, actor Rod Steiger recently described the director as our god, our father, our teacher. Accordingly, Kazans betrayal of friends before HUAC evoked shock and bitterness.
Adding to his legacy, two years after HUAC, Kazan directed On The Waterfront, a story of union corruption with an informer as hero. There were also rumors that Kazan had named names after being pressured by a studio boss about the consequences of being uncooperative. And even as the destructive effects of his testimony became more evident, he remained unrepentant, unapologetic.
A few more acclaimed movies followed for Kazan (East Of Eden and Splendor In The Grass), but from 1952 to 1999 his film triumphs, great as they may be, have remained knotted to his indelible reputation as a stoolie. Elia Kazan deserves his shame.