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,

Sunday’s 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 Kazan’s 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, Hollywood’s 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 LA’s 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

Academy’s 39-member board (that voted unanimously to approve the award) miscalculated

in assuming the movie industry’s 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 Hollywood’s 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 York’s 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, Kazan’s 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 wasn’t Kazan’s 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 "Gentleman’s Agreement," a film attacking anti-semitism. His

Broadway productions of Death Of A Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire were hailed as

masterpieces. Remembering Kazan’s influence on film and conscience in the early

1950s, actor Rod Steiger recently described the director as “our god, our father, our

teacher.” Accordingly, Kazan’s 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.

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