An Oscar for Elia

  • For Hollywood, history has always been what it likes to call "underlying material," a lode of legend, conveniently located in the public domain, from which it can quarry inspirational tales of resistance to tyranny, redemption from injustice. From The Life of Emile Zola to Braveheart, audiences bedeviled by the ambiguities of modern life have derived moral instruction and emotional uplift from these transformations of the complex past into simple, glowing metaphorical guides to right behavior.

    In reality, of course, history is not a movie. It resists simple plotting and easy moralizing. It is, in fact, a script trapped forever in development (and sometimes in turnaround), as each new generation reinvents the past according to its needs. That the governing board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, that most cautious of Hollywood institutions, would abandon the town's ruling narrative conventions and embrace historical indeterminacy by voting--without dissent or demur--to present this year's honorary Oscar to a proud, fragile, now almost silent old man named Elia Kazan is astonishing. And to some of its constituents, adherents of both the old and new left, shocking.

    To them, the great directorial career this award honors--one of the few such in America that actually changed the way people perceive movies--is irrelevant. To them, Kazan, 89, is a traitor who, almost a half-century ago, when anticommunist blacklisting plagued American life in general and show business in particular, "named names" before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and, worse, has ever since refused to register shame or apology for so doing. To them, precisely because he was the most powerful individual to choose this course, he remains the central symbolic figure in the cautionary political fable they concocted around those long-ago events. Because it reads so simply--good vs. bad, tight-lipped political martyrs vs. opportunistic informers--this view has been unquestioningly accepted by most Americans. It taps into two of their salient qualities: their sense of fair play and their impatience with ideological nuance. Those protesting the Academy's action are, naturally, counting on it to work for them again.

    It may not. Around the industry last week, one sensed that many judged 47 years of relentless contumely more than sufficient punishment for Kazan's ancient apostasy. It is not at all clear how many supporters are rallying to a campaign led by two formerly blacklisted screenwriters, Abraham Polonsky and Bernard Gordon, urging the audience at the Oscar ceremony to "sit on their hands" when Kazan accepts his award unless he recants his sins. This curious plan represents something of a tactical retreat for Polonsky, who only weeks ago was "hoping someone shoots [Kazan]" because "it would no doubt be a thrill on an otherwise dull evening."

    Here, this writer should probably admit his biases. He speaks as a lifelong liberal, appalled since coming to political consciousness by the kind of Stalinoid bullying and terror inherent in Polonsky's chilling remark. Also as a lifelong cineast who came to aesthetic consciousness as Kazan was achieving his unprecedented (and so far unduplicated) status as the leading director in both theater and movies. And, finally, as one befriended by Kazan a decade ago, when I began producing a TV documentary about him.

    The liberal, true to his creed, sees more complexity in Kazan's course than his enemies can admit. A Communist Party member for a year and a half when he was a young actor in the Group Theater, Kazan quit in 1936, loathing the party functionaries' instructions on how to subvert that shaky, invaluable institution to their hidden agendas. This experience was hardly unique. Neither was his puzzlement 16 years later, when the party expected people like Kazan to assert blind, retrospective loyalty to a cause they had abandoned for good, principled reasons. By that time, Kazan, like many others, had acquired new, better and more pressing obligations--to family, to the hard-learned truth about a secretive political party controlled virtually on a day-to-day basis by Moscow and, above all, to the art that defined him more accurately than any politics. This, incidentally, was the same harsh truth confronted earlier by some of the 19 "unfriendly" witnesses (later winnowed down to the Hollywood 10), who had left or were leaving the party but who felt obliged to stand with their former colleagues in the first round of HUAC hearings.

    They, at least, were acting on fairly recent loyalties. And they were testing unknown waters in 1947, hoping their resistance to congressional inquiry into their beliefs would be upheld by the courts. Alas, it was not, and by the time Kazan was called to the hearing room five years later, the resulting blacklist was an established fact of movie life. Opposition to it was purely quixotic. And entirely useless. That doesn't mean the choice between two wretched alternatives--the know-nothing right and the totalitarian left--was made without anguish. As Kazan says in his self-lacerating autobiography, "That's what a difficult decision means: either way, you lose." But, as authors Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund put it in The Inquisition in Hollywood, "Contrary to the victims' angry feelings, the informers did not cause the destruction which overtook their uncompromising colleagues. By April 1951 it was eminently clear...that HUAC had sufficient nails, wood and bloodthirsty onlookers for all the crucifixions." In this context, Kazan's surrender of eight names, all of whom were almost certainly known to his interrogators, hardly deserves the opprobrium he has so long endured. Or the absurd new attack on him, which is again primarily symbolic.

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