Oscar's Unforgiven

By all accounts, he was one of the greatest film and theater directors of his day. So when 89-year-old Elia Kazan received an honorary Oscar Sunday night, it may have seemed to many an honor long overdue. Not everyone thinks so. Correspondent Jerry Bowen reports that some people can never forgive Kazan for what he did a half-century ago.

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He twice won the Academy Award as best director, for On The Waterfront, and Gentleman's Agreement.

He launched the career of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass, James Dean in East of Eden.

Some have called Elia Kazan a genius, and Sunday the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences honored him with a special Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. Not everyone is happy about that.

Not Rod Steiger, who got his big break from Kazan in Waterfront. He says: "It was like I found out my father was sleeping with my sister. I said, 'what are you talking about? No. Not my father'."

Not Bernard Gordon, who said he would be protesting outside the Oscar ceremony. He explains: "What he did was not a crime. It was a sin. Maybe God can forgive sins, but we can't. I can't."

What Kazan did was name names. The House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating the movie industry in the late 1940s, looking for communists. Hollywood blacklisted those who were suspect, unless they cooperated. Kazan was one of few in Hollywood who provided information to the committee.

Says Victor Navasky, "It was a time of political hysteria."

Navasky, publisher of The Nation magazine and author of Naming Names, which examined the blacklist era, says, "The Cold War was at its height. We were at war in Korea. China had the bomb. The Hiss case, the Rosenberg case, the leadership of the Communist Party itself had been put on trial. It was a time of great fear."

Kazan, who had been a Communist Party member for two years in the '30s when he was a young actor, was called to testify in 1952. He named eight members of his legendary Group Theatre, names many say already were known to the committee.

What, then, was his sin?

Time Magazine critic Richard Schickel, a Kazan defender who is producing the tribute to Kazan that will be shown at the Oscars, says, "In my opinion there was no sin, but that's a complicated story."

Schickel continues, "Who did he rat out? People they already knew were communists. They wanted from him a symbolic act and he didn't feel lke giving them that symbolic act out of retrospective loyalty, you know. He did not stand with these people."

At the time he testified, Kazan was a giant in theater and film. He was the premiere Broadway director, staging plays by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. And he was an Oscar-winning director in Hollywood. No one else has attained such dual stature, before or since.

Says Schickel, "He was, in those days...a wonderfully feisty, energetic, unstoppable sort of force of nature if you willÂ….actors swore by him because there were results. You were never better than you were for Elia Kazan."

Steiger recalls, "He was like our father figure. It was a family and Kazan represented our leader, our guide, our educator, our confessor."

Kazan's stature gave his testimony greater importance.

Says Navasky, "I think you can't say that any one person in 1952 could have destroyed the black list, but if any one person could have made a difference, Kazan would have been in the circle of those who might have made a difference."

Kazan did more than name names. Navasky recalls, "He then took an ad in the The New York Times and Variety in which he gave his reasons for doing soÂ…and he urged other people to do likewise. That combative stance made him a lightning rod for a lot of the controversy that lasts until this day."

Some thought Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who also named names, were trying to justify their stance with the film On the Waterfront, in which the hero is a snitch. Kazan addressed the issue in an interview with Schickel ten years ago. He said: "It was not the reason we made the film. And when it was reduced to that I think people are stupid. But it did, it did fortify and it was lodged in us. We said, 'when you feel something is bad in society, it's your duty to speak up and not duck it and not say wrong things about it.' And my experience with the communists all the time was that they were concealing what was bad or covering it with false hopes or one thing or another."

Kazan received a Kennedy Center honor in 1983, but he has been denied tributes from the film industry until this year's Academy Awards. Now 89, frail and in poor health after several strokes, he has been silent on the controversy, but is expected be there to accept the award.

Bruce Davis, executive director of the Motion Picture Academy, says, "I hope...it's a moment of homecoming and triumph."

Is Davis surprised that there is so much passion, that it still resonates as it does? He says he is "a little surprised," adding, "I think you can learn the lessons of the black list without carrying a grudge against particular individuals for nearly a half century."

Warren Beatty got his start in Kazan's 'Splendor in the Grass'
Some who worked with Kazan have risen to his defense. Warren Beatty told a press conference: "When you talk about Kazan you're talking about a man that taught me more than any, anybody else did about how to make movies. You're talking about someone that I love. And whose work I respect. My understanding is that the award is for his work. It's not for his politics."

Even those blacklisted, like actress Kim Hunter, say "let it go."

Before Hunter was blacklisted, she had played Stella in Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire. She is one of nine actors to win Oscars for Kazan films.

Screenwriter Bernard Gordon also was blacklisted. He does not forgive Kazan. Can he ever atone in Gordon's eyes? "Atonement is something I don't feel is in my power to give, but I would feel much better about this whole thing if he and the Academy on the night of the award said 'we are giving this to Mr. Kazan for his work as an artist, but we are definitely not giving it to him for his work as a citizen of our country'," Gordon says.

Rod Steiger adds, "He had a choice. And I think he made a malignant choice Â…age to me does not justify his betrayal."

But to those people who won't let it go, Schickel has a suggestion: "'Why don't you seek closure over somebody else's ancient body?' is what I say to them."


For more information:

  • Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
    8949 Wilshire Boulevard
    Beverly Hills, CA 90211-1972
    Phone: 310-247-3000

  • Elia Kazan: A Life
    By Kazan
    Da Capo Press, 1997
    bookstore
    Elia Kazan: A Life

  • Kazan on Kazan: The Master Director Discusses his Films
    Jeff Young, Editor
    New Market Press, 1999


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