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  Kazan Accepts Oscar Amid Protests, Applause

By Sharon Waxman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 1999

LOS ANGELES – The controversial Oscar presented to Elia Kazan, director of such acclaimed films as "A Streetcar Named Desire," "On the Waterfront" and "Gentleman's Agreement" ignited an unexpected storm of controversy that cast a shadow over the glamorous ceremonies.

The award angered those who believe the director betrayed others when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, naming eight colleagues who were former communists. His testimony, given at the height of his career, was perceived as a key act of complicity as the studios instituted a blacklist that targeted communists, leftist sympathizers and those who would not "name names" to Congress.

There was great anticipation when Kazan came to the podium to accept his award, but he did not address the issue, except obliquely. The audience applauded loudly and numerous people stood up – the camera showed Meryl Streep, Helen Hunt, Lynn Redgrave and Kathy Bates – but others refused to applaud, such as Nick Nolte whom the camera showed sitting with folded hands.

Kazan thanked the academy for "its courage, generosity," and hugged presenters Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. "Thank you all very much. I think I can just slip away," he said.

Then he turned to his wife, Frances, and said, "Do you think I should say more?" But he didn't.

From the start of the evening, the turmoil over Kazan had distinguished the 71st Academy Awards.

A couple of snarling, sign-clutching men faced each other at the edge of a police barrier in downtown Los Angeles today as security guards in tuxedos hovered nearby. "Kazan's talent doesn't care who it insults but humanity cares," read the sign of Jack Michon, of the L.A. Green party. The message angered Irv Rubin, national chairman of the Jewish Defense League, who was here to support the honorary Oscar being given to the 89-year-old Kazan.

"I believe communism is evil," Rubin said with an intensity that belied the virtual absence of communism in 1999 America. "If somebody joined the Communist Party, I have no sympathy for them whatsoever. Those people who were Stalinists – I don't care about when it was – they're evil. They're fellow travelers."

Other protesters tonight – some from the Ayn Rand Institute, others just fierce opponents of communism – hailed Kazan's decision as an act of courage against a genuine communist threat. That group, which numbered about 100, carried signs that read, "The Night to Say No to Communism" and "Hollywood Communists Should Apologize."

The issue has been a surprise flash point at an event where the sharpest controversies usually concern what star is wearing whose designer gown. A group of several hundred protesters opposing Kazan – some from the entertainment industry's largest union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, gathered in front of the red-carpeted entrance to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, waving signs that read, "Don't Whitewash the Blacklist" and "How many lives did Kazan ruin?"

On the picket line, Becca Wilson, the daughter of blacklisted writer Michael Wilson said, "My father didn't get his Oscar until seven years after his death. I feel very angry that the academy is giving Kazan this award." Michael Wilson was belatedly credited with writing "Bridge On the River Kwai" and other major films.

Arthur Lessac, an 89-year-old retired teacher – his frail hands shaking with age – said he was infuriated by the decision to honor Kazan. "It's very simple," he said. "Great artists are not necessarily fine people. I believe what he did was evil, even though he's a great artist. As an artist he was a leader, as a person he wasn't."

Kazan has declined to comment on the controversy surrounding his award.

In a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times, his wife, Frances, said her husband would not apologize for what was a decision of conscience.

"He's become the focus of this free-floating anger about that era because he won't be cowed," she told the newspaper. "But he has nothing to be contrite about. He did what he did out of principle."

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post

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