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  Honor for Elia Kazan Stirs Up
Those Blacklisted in McCarthy Era

By Sharon Waxman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 1999

It has been nearly 47 years since Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and denounced eight colleagues as onetime Communists.

An age ago in a different world, perhaps, but not long enough for those stung by his betrayal to forgive or forget.

So, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences prepares to honor the 89-year-old director of "On the Waterfront," "Gentleman's Agreement" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" with a special Oscar for his body of work, a quiet protest is slowly gathering force in Hollywood against the planned accolade.

Some former leftists who were blacklisted during that period have vowed to picket the ceremony. Others are urging academy members to register their protest on Oscar night, March 21, by refusing to applaud when Kazan rises to the stage.

"He's being honored as if he were a hero when in fact he was a heel," said an angry Norma Barzman, a blacklisted writer who lived in France for 30 years. She is raising money for an anti-Kazan ad in Daily Variety. "It's no joke. He destroyed many, many lives."

"Okay, Kazan's a good director, but how does that compare with the enormous damage he did to the industry and to the country by cooperating with HUAC, by turning on lifelong friends, by destroying careers and livelihood," asked Bernard Gordon, another blacklisted writer who is spearheading the plans for a picket.

Kazan, who is ailing, has issued a statement that expresses thanks for the Oscar and gratitude to those who helped him, but has not addressed the controversy surrounding his Oscar. His lawyer, Floria Lasky, said those criticizing Kazan have not accounted for the high-stakes atmosphere of the time.

"It's a big subject," she said. "Why one person would decide to do it that way, and somebody else not . . . " she paused. "They show no respect for another person's point of view." She suggested that Kazan's former communist associates should answer for their own support of a discredited totalitarian system.

A director of enormous achievements both on Broadway and in Hollywood in the 1950s and '60s, Kazan was a onetime member of the Communist Party, which was not uncommon in the artistic and intellectual community of his youth. His repudiation before HUAC in 1952 of former friends (and comrades) in the New York-based Group Theater, including playwright Clifford Odets, actor Paula Strasberg and director Morris Carnovsky, stunned left-wing circles on either coast.

Although many of those he named were already known to the committee, Kazan's decision to cooperate with his inquisitors was considered a key capitulation. As HUAC gained more power, citing for contempt of Congress those who refused to testify, an anti-Communist blacklist arose in Hollywood that effectively ended the careers of those who were named or who refused to inform on others.

"I literally saw the blacklist. It was a book. It was a horror," said Roger Mayer, a member of the academy board who was an executive at MGM during the blacklist years. "But if we start handing out artistic awards based on someone's political beliefs, I think we're in trouble."

But Gordon disagrees: "He kept assuring people that he would never talk to those people, never give names, but when they got to him, he did." Furthermore, after informing on his friends, Kazan took out an ad in the New York Times denouncing Communism and urging others to speak out. He has never apologized for his decision to inform, and in his 1988 memoir, "Elia Kazan: A Life," said he would do the same given the same circumstances. This, as much as anything, is the reason for the ongoing acrimony among blacklist survivors.

"He could have said something at the time. Elia was in a very strong position," said Frances Lardner, a former actress and wife of the blacklisted screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. who is now 83. "To act as if it's just business as usual is just pure [expletive]."

Charlton Heston, who never worked with Kazan, said political opinions should have no place in the decision to honor a director. "I think his body of work is as good as anyone's in the industry. I think it's fiercely unfair to deny him an honor voted unanimously by the Motion Picture Academy's board because of his political differences."

But the fact is Kazan has been denied honors for many years because of the stigma of informer that has hung over his directorial legacy. He was proposed as a candidate for the American Film Institute's lifetime achievement award three times, and thrice denied, the last occasion when a young producer protested.

Heston was present at the AFI meeting in 1989. "It looked like a done deal. Several people . . . had pointed out the towering body of work he had, everyone had made speeches, when suddenly [producer] Gale Anne Hurd stood up in some distress and said, 'We can't give this award to him. He's a great director, but he named names,'" Heston recalled. "There was a stunned silence, some debate back and forth – and that effectively killed it."

Similarly, Kazan's critics derailed an attempt by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association to honor him two years ago.

The academy has tried to make amends for its own complicity during the McCarthy era, bestowing posthumous Oscars on blacklisted writers who were never properly credited for their work. This year actor Karl Malden, a respected longtime board member and a lifelong friend of Kazan (the director cast Malden as Mitch in "Streetcar"), decided to propose an honorary Oscar. After his speech before the academy board, he was greeted with applause, and the proposal was adopted.

It is only in the past 10 days or so that some have come forward to criticize the decision. The anti-Kazan feeling buzzed through a cocktail party for the Writers Guild awards last week, where elderly writers passed the word of their decision to protest the tribute. Lardner, bent double with age, said he had mixed feelings. "I think Kazan did a repulsive thing 50 years ago," he said. "But I don't think it diminishes his achievements as a director."

At the guild awards Saturday night, some were surprised when a respected academy board member, Hal Kanter, opened the ceremony by saying, "My first impulse, always as a human being, is to forgive and let bygones go by. But in the current controversy over an Academy Award, I am ambivalent about honoring Elia Kazan."

It may be hard for those who did not live through the McCarthy period to understand the depth of emotion that endures in its wake. Certainly the Motion Picture Academy cannot relish the idea of 70- and 80-year-olds carrying picket signs outside its glamorous ceremony.

But Bruce Davis, the academy's executive director, concedes that those who were hurt by the blacklist have the right to protest. "If you lived through the blacklist and were personally scarred by it, you have every right to feel strongly about it," he said. "Those who attack Mr. Kazan based on the assumption that they would have made the harder choice had they been placed in his position – I'm less impressed by."

But former blacklistees say their primary intent is to remind the millions who watch the ceremony of the director's past. They say they don't expect an apology from Kazan, but they sure would like to get one.

"I've written movies. I've made movies. I don't think movies are so important. What happens in a country like America is more important," says Gordon. "I don't care if there were 10 Cold Wars on. There's no justification for destroying people. And that's what happened."

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post

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