The news that the great director Elia Kazan will be presented with a life-achievement Academy Award at this year's ceremony surprised and delighted many, myself included. It had long been widely assumed that Kazan, now eighty-nine, would forever be slighted in terms of formal recognition for his career, all because he was far ahead of his show-business brethren in grasping the hideous truth about Communism.
That's not quite how his critics would put it, of course. To them, Kazan is secondarily the gifted artist who made "On the Waterfront," "East of Eden," and "A Streetcar Named Desire" and primarily the rat who, testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, "named names." Specifically, he named eight persons who were Communists in the mid-1930s, when he himself belonged to the party. More than fifteen years later, Kazan wrote, "To be a member of the Communist party is to have a taste of the police state. It is a diluted taste but it is bitter and unforgettable. It is diluted because you can walk out" - which he did, after a year and a half.
Several previous high-profile attempts to honor Kazan have failed. Charlton Heston described one in the January 20 Wall Street Journal. In 1989, when Heston, then president of the American Film Institute, proposed that the AFI's life-achievement honor go to Kazan, producer Gale Anne Hurd (the "Terminator" movies; "Armageddon"), declared that "we can't give this award to a man who named names" and led a successful charge against his effort.
Hurd now says that on esthetic grounds, Kazan "absolutely deserves" the special Oscar, explaining that she opposed the AFI award because "at the time...the arts were under fire by zealots like Jesse Helms, [and] I was concerned about what sort of message we were sending." Understanding non sequiturs apparently isn't a high-priority item in Tinseltown.
Sadly, in commentary on Kazan's Academy Award, the same muddleheaded analysis was evident. In a piece for the industry's hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, author David Freeman declared that when Kazan testified before HUAC, he was "on the wrong side of the issues." London's the Independent published a dispatch by Andrew Gumbel stating that "Kazan's testimony was considered particularly treacherous because of his track record as a socially and politically committed artist."
Some surviving blacklistees spoke up as well. In a letter to the Times, screenwriter Bernard Gordon, best known for the first movie version of "The Thin Red Line," said he was "appalled" by this "award to a man who was a prize informer in the campaign of HUAC to demonize the rest of us." Screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, who recently told the Times, "I thought Marxism offered the best analysis of history and I still believe that," called Kazan "a creep."
(Meanwhile, another group that has ignored Kazan, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, just presented a career achievement award to...Polonsky. It's as if Hall of Fame voters snubbed George Brett in favor of a batboy.)
If you wonder why Kazan gets under the skin of the Hollywood left, consider this lucid, commonsensical passage from his autobiography: "I believed it was the duty of the government to investigate the Communist movement in our country. There was no way I could go along with [the] crap that the CP was nothing but another political party, like the Republicans and the Democrats. I knew very well what it was, a thoroughly organized, worldwide conspiracy."
Kazan was right, of course. He saw past noble rhetoric to ugly reality. To the Communists, the masters of the seductive lie, he was worse than useless. He was the kind of enemy they most feared: the kind who truly understood them.
When Kazan accepts his award on March 21, memories of the trendy, vacuous political speechifying that has marred other Oscar ceremonies will vanish, if only momentarily. It will be well worth tuning in to see how the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion - the Hollywood establishment - responds to this oft-maligned prophet as he receives his honor.
To have been a forthright enemy of Communism was to have been on the right side of this century's central struggle. These days, Communists and their sympathizers, having been decisively defeated, have no battles to fight, so they refight those in the past - and they've lost yet again, now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has at last done right by Elia Kazan.