In the run-up to Sunday’s Oscar ceremony the focus was on Elia Kazan and whether the Motion Picture Academy was doing the right thing by honoring him with a Lifetime Achievement Award (see page 57). Nobody denies that Kazan was a great film director. He gave us, among amazing others, Gentleman’s Agreement (on anti-Semitism), Pinky (on racism), On the Waterfront (yes, it’s the ultimate apologia for informing, but it’s also a powerful movie about union corruption and the human spirit).
But awards are symbols, and the question is whether it’s appropriate to honor Kazan’s lifetime contribution to the motion picture industry without simultaneously acknowledging that part of his contribution was to put his fellow artists out of work and to feed the hysteria that made it impossible for others to make the sort of politically serious films that first won Kazan his prestige.
Four possible responses suggest themselves: First, there is the position of Charlton Heston and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., that when fighting the Communists the end justifies the means and Kazan was right to cooperate with the lesser-evil House Un-American Activities Committee to expose the greater-evil Stalinist Russia. But this doesn’t wash. Kazan could have used his famous New York Times ad not merely to attack the USSR but also to explain why it would be morally wrong to cooperate with HUAC.
Second, there is the more palatable position of Arthur Miller, who argued, in the spirit of Dalton Trumbo (see “Kazan and the Bad Times,” March 22), that revulsion against the informers who helped validate the Congressional investigation should not be permitted to deflect attention from HUAC’s depredations. Miller conceded that because of his own experience, he is “perhaps overly sensitive to any attempts to, in effect, obliterate an artist’s name because of his morals or political actions.”
Third, there is the position of the academy dissidents, who will either march outside the Oscar festivities or sit on their hands inside to protest honoring a man who in their eyes dishonored the profession by failing to fight back when it counted.
No one can gainsay the blacklisted their right to resent and denounce those who collaborated with their persecutors, but let me suggest a fourth stance: It is not the House Un-American Activities Committee, not Kazan and not the industry (none of whom behaved with honor) who ought to be at the center of our consciousness on Oscar night. The focus should be on those anonymous writers, directors and actors who resisted. They are the unsung heroes of the blacklist, and their song ought to be sung. If the academy wants to do the right thing, how about an Oscar for the hundreds of blacklistees who never made it back?