Shud He Have Been a Contendah? | The Nation


Shud He Have Been a Contendah?

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The inevitable controversy--presenting name-naming film director Elia Kazan with a Lifetime Achievement Award--has unfolded like an accident waiting to happen, aggravating the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' already sordid history during the blacklist era. (Assuming faux neutrality then--like the Vatican during World War II--the academy knowingly awarded Oscars to fictitious writers and fronts, including one who did not even speak English. And this institution with a long history of obtuseness and obfuscation has, like Kazan, never publicly apologized.)

About the Author

Cliff Rothman
Cliff Rothman is a cultural reporter at large for the New York Times, Harpers Bazaar, GQ, Vanity Fair and The Nation.

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The furor that has shone a spotlight on the moral equivocation of the board's choice has embarrassed the members who voted against their conscience. "I'm a compromised person, on many levels," admits board member Haskell Wexler, the Oscar-winning cinematographer and director who was himself blacklisted but caved in to Karl Malden's barnstorming speech on behalf of his ailing friend Kazan. "When we raised our hands, I didn't raise my hand high." He laughs, ruefully. "I've made so many ruckuses in that room recently, I was just sort of running out of gas," says Wexler, knowing the statistics were in Kazan's favor. "But a number of people looked at me, thinking I'd open my radical mouth."

So Kazan is now the flashpoint for brilliant artists and leaders with tainted private lives. To what extent can one compartmentalize? The issue of ratting on friends resonates, with Lewinsky and Tripp, Hitchens and Blumenthal, in the news. What is friendship, and what are the boundaries? And the blacklist? For a generation it stood as the embodiment of cowardice and self-interest, and now naming names is in the midst of rehabilitation by the political right.

Protests and counterprotests, even countercounterprotests, were scheduled. The glove was tossed down by the Committee Against Silence, a hastily assembled agglomeration of liberals, leftists and the blacklisted, which announced a public protest outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion the night of the Oscars, March 21. Charlton Heston appeared on Good Morning America, flummoxing interviewer Aaron Brown with a defense of Kazan and McCarthyism because There Was a Cold War Going On. "This was very serious stuff," Heston intoned to Brown. "We were fighting a war." Then another newly formed group, the ad hoc Committee for Naming Facts, an offshoot of the Ayn Rand Institute, announced a counterprotest on Oscar night, in support of the award. "We wanted to defend and honor Kazan as a principled man who fought bravely for America and its freedoms," says committee vice chairman Scott McConnell. A memorial service at the Writers Guild on March 5 honored Ben Margolis, lead attorney for the Hollywood Ten and a founder of the National Lawyers Guild. And two days before the Oscar awards, Nightline was devoting its show to the Kazan controversy, while four trade-paper ads, funded by the Committee Against Silence, were taken out to denounce the Kazan award and to urge attendees not to applaud him. Others were being urged to wear an American flag pin in their lapel in support of him.

The right seemed to be winning the PR war because Hollywood, predominantly Democratic and liberal, was largely silent. The film community, where the blacklist played out on its most visible terrain, is ever a company town, and was running scared. "I'd say that fear is still rampant in Hollywood," assesses Norma Barzman (Luxury Girls, Never Say Goodbye), who was blacklisted along with her husband, Ben (The Boy With Green Hair, Back to Bataan), and forced to move to Europe for their livelihood. Barzman, canvassing the town for names and cash for the trade-paper protest, found that the big names would not call back, or offered their dough silently. She laughs when recounting a conversation with a television producer who was willing to donate, but not openly. "Norma," he confided, "I'll give you money but I'm in the middle of a deal. You understand."

It's been a situation of less-than-obvious motivation all around. Time's defense of Kazan and the award, written by film critic Richard Schickel, didn't mention Schickel's personal bias toward Kazan's politics, which had led to a heated volley of letters with Haskell Wexler in 1995. When Wexler angrily called Kazan "a stoolie," Schickel replied with equal vehemence that he applauded Kazan's naming of names: "I've never seen anything particularly immoral about it.... Had I been in Elia's position in 1953 I'm certain I would have done exactly as he did--and equally without regret."

Five decades ago the town just caved in. The major studios, television networks and trade unions all succumbed to the blacklist. "The so-called trade papers also played a rather virulent role in the blacklist," recalls Daily Variety editor in chief and former industry executive Peter Bart. "The Reporter, especially, was flagrant in espousing the blacklist, publicizing those people who were blacklisting people. They gave them tremendous publicity." This time around, Daily Variety's veteran columnist Army Archerd has waged a single-handed campaign of outspokenness against the Kazan award. "And I'm just one who will still remain seated during the Honorary Oscar presentation," he wrote in the first of five columns on the subject.

Kazan, with his roots in the Russian-soaked theater discipline that eventually evolved into the Actors Studio, and one of the film industry's most powerful and thoughtful directors--by virtue of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Pinky, A Streetcar Named Desire and Gentleman's Agreement--had been expected to take the high road and challenge McCarthyism. That he didn't, and then went the extra step to volunteer names, unapologetically, is the nub of the ferocious rage and sense of betrayal still directed at him. (The American Film Institute has turned him down for its lifetime achievement award, for example.)

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