Controversy over Oscar for Kazan heats up
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By Paul Clinton
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- For many in Hollywood, the seminal issue of the 71st Annual Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday won't be which movie is named Best Picture, but rather who will and who won't applaud when legendary director Elia Kazan is given a Lifetime Achievement Award for his remarkable contribution to the art of filmmaking.
Now 89 years old, Kazan's impressive body of work includes such late 1940s and early '50s films as "On the Waterfront," "East of Eden," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Gentleman's Agreement," and "A Face in the Crowd."
On the surface, the controversy is straightforward. In 1952, Kazan appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and named eight of his old friends from the Group Theater who, along with him, had in the 1930s been members of the American Communist Party.
Many in Hollywood are still outraged over that time in U.S. history when people who were blacklisted by the studios --writers, directors, and actors -- never worked again, fled the country, worked under aliases, or even, in extreme cases, committed suicide.
'An expression of resistance'
Bernard Gordon, a screenwriter who was blacklisted in the '50s, is co-chair of a movement, "The Committee Against Silence," formed to protest the special presentation to Kazan at the awards ceremony.
It has been reported, but not confirmed by the Academy, that director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro will be making the presentation.
"We are not going to ask people to disrupt the occasion, but to sit on their hands," Gordon says. "Instead of standing up and applauding, we want them to keep seated -- we'd like to see the camera pick that up as an expression of resistance."
The Committee is also planning a demonstration and press conference on Thursday, March 18, in front of the Academy's Los Angeles headquarters. In addition, the executive council of the Writer's Guild of America East has voted 11 to 2 to protest the Academy's decision to present Kazan with a special Oscar.
Full-page ad blasts Kazan
And in another sign of the controversy, a full-page ad against Kazan's upcoming Oscar recognition appeared in the March 15 issue of the Hollywood Reporter. Jules Dassin, 87, a former screenwriter and director now living in Greece, was blacklisted in the 1952. He paid $2,160 for the advertisement, which read:
Dassin directed the 1948 classic "Naked City," and he wrote and directed the 1960 Greek film that made Melina Mercouri an international star, "Never On Sunday." When reached in Greece by phone, Dassin said he placed the ad because Kazan "was someone I loved and I never got over it." He added that he would have nothing to say to Kazan if given the opportunity. In fact, Dassin says, "He has wanted to meet with me for years, but I won't do it. I have nothing to say to him, not 'good morning' or 'go away.'"
Stars divided on issue
On March 10 the Writer's Guild Of America restored the names of seven blacklisted screenwriters to the credits of six films. (During the blacklist, many writers wrote under assumed names.) Among those writers was Norma Barzman, who wrote the 1953 film "Luxury Girls."
"I think (Kazan's) art is worthy of recognition," she says, "but I think he has received two Oscars for his work and that this Oscar is not really for work, it's honoring the man. I think that his lifetime achievement is great films, which I admire -- I'm really a great fan of his work -- but his lifetime achievement was also the destruction of lives. And I think that is wrong."
Actor James Coburn, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor this year for his role in "Affliction," is in favor of Kazan's award, but adds, "It will be interesting to find out just what the response will be, whether they'll be standing or booing. But I think it's very brave of the Academy to honor him."
Best Director Oscar nominee Steven Spielberg expects the response will be positive. "I think you'll understand the way we feel about it the night of the Academy Awards. I think when Mr. Kazan walks out to accept his award, I think you'll feel from a lot of people in the Academy good support for his work. The body of his work has been a great influence upon me and all of my peers."
In fact, there was no protest when Kazan won the coveted D.W. Griffith Award from the Director's Guild of America in 1987 -- even though the honor is the greatest that can be bestowed by the Guild. Ironically, the first D.W. Griffith Award was handed out in 1953, at the height of the Red Scare.
Unrecalcitrant about naming names
Kazan's films reflect his deep commitment to social issues affecting the common man. "Gentleman's Agreement" exposed anti-semitic hatred in the United States, and his film "Pinky" attacked racism against blacks. But this commitment to good causes only added fuel to the fiery anger felt by many when he exposed his fellow artists to the persecution of the McCarthy era.
Some are hoping that Kazan will take the award as an opportunity to apologize for his actions. But those who know him are doubtful. In his 1988 autobiography, "Elia Kazan: A Life," Kazan made his position on the matter very clear.
"In the end, when I did what I did, it was for my own good reasons and after much thought about my experience. I did what I did because it was more tolerable of two alternatives that were; either way, painful, even disastrous, and either way wrong for me. That's what a difficult decision means. Either way you go, you lose," he wrote. "Reader, I don't seek your favor -- if you expect an apology now because I would later name names to the House Committee, you've misjudged my character."
Kazan also answered his critics with "On the Waterfront." The screenplay was written by Budd Schulberg, who also named names. This film, which earned Marlon Brando his first Oscar, was about a dock worker who bucked the system by testifying (naming names) against corrupt labor leaders. The movie is full of terms such as "stoolie," "cheesies" and "canaries." In one famous speech Brando tells character Johnny Friendly (played by Lee J. Cobb, also a real-life informer), "I've been ratting on myself all these years and I didn't know it. I'm glad what I done."
Kazan's attitude is at the heart of the controversy. Some think that by honoring his work, they will be affirming his past actions and his character.
"Waterfront" actor Rod Steiger knew Kazan well. "With Kazan," he says, "I'm angry because this man was very well off in the theater financially. I could understand -- even though I wouldn't like it -- a man panicking because he doesn't have the money to educate or feed his kids and in a moment of animalistic fear said, 'him, John or Bill.' But when a guy does it so he can do movies, who's already wealthy, and it comes down to professional ambition and greed -- this is what I say, age (the age of the action, in this case 47 years ago) does not excuse such a crime."
Yet Robert Osborne, a film historian and host of the cable network Turner Classic Movies, finds the current controversy's timing curiously off. "He named names in 1952, in 1954 he was voted by the Academy for Best Director of the year for 'On the Waterfront.' The following year, 1955, he as nominated as Best Director for 'East Of Eden' -- he was being rewarded by the Academy after it happened. Why now?" he asks.
Some may argue that the fear of the House Un-American Committee was still alive and well in Hollywood until well after McCarthy was disgraced and the hearings were disbanded. When it came to voting for the Academy Awards in 1954, his status as a namer of names may have actually helped him win. (Kazan also won another Oscar in 1948 for directing "Gentleman's Agreement.")
Liberal defended by conservatives
In Hollywood, positions between political conservatives and liberals are usually very clear. But in this case, the lines are blurred: Kazan was a liberal who wound up having mainly conservatives defend his behavior.
Legendary TV and filmmaker Carl Reiner is widely considered a liberal but in this case the nature of the offense overrides any liberal urge he might have to forgive and forget.
"I'm signing the letter that says, let's be quiet when he gets his award and just sit there," says Reiner. "I think it's very sad that this man is being honored and the people he destroyed are never going to have a chance to be honored."
Charlton Heston, the standard-bearer of conservatism in Hollywood, disagrees. "I think it's long overdue. I think if you polled all these serious filmmakers in this town, all the people who work in the industry, you would find the majority in favor of Mr. Kazan," he says.
Academy Award winner Warren Beatty is a well-known advocate for liberal causes. His feature film debut, "Splendor in the Grass," was directed by Kazan. "I learned more from Kazan than I learned from anybody else," he says, "so I can't say enough positive things about Kazan. I would leave it at that. I love the man."
Whatever happens on March 21, whether Kazan is greeted with boos or cheers, it's sure to be another memorable moment in the Academy's long history of memorable moments.
Red Scare era haunts 'East of Eden' director
IMDb: Elia Kazan The Official Academy Awards Site
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