Why Elia Kazan should not receive an Oscar

By bestowing a special honor on the director, who already has won two Oscars, the academy is glossing over history.

Published March 17, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Watched John Ford's 1956 "The Searchers" on video the other night. My wife had never seen it. At the end, of course, she was drop-jawed stunned, and talked about it for days, not because it's an impeccable masterpiece; at best it's a flawed masterpiece. Leaving aside Jane Darwell in "The Grapes of Wrath," Ford could never direct women to save his life, and every time "The Searchers" switches to the Vera Miles-Jeffrey Hunter romantic subplot, it heads south. Which is to say, every time either Monument Valley or John Wayne isn't on-screen.

It was Wayne who blew my wife away, and if you've ever seen "The Searchers" -- or, for that matter, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" or "Red River" -- and your mind is at least cracked ajar if not wide open, you already know he's the most underrated actor in the history of American film. If his range was narrow, his control of every nuance within that range was untouchable. That he is so underrated is partly his own fault; as time went by, he was seduced more and more by his own iconography, and in the 20 years between "The Searchers" and his elegiac final film, "The Shootist," in 1976, the movies where he was willing to turn that iconography inside out or on its head, such as "Rio Bravo" or "True Grit" or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," became more and more exceptional.

But that Hollywood underrated him also because it hated his politics is as incontestable as the fact that his politics were indeed pretty stupid; this is, after all, the guy who said in a Playboy interview that the Indians deserved to be wiped out because they wouldn't share their country with the people stealing it from them. In its artistic assessments over the last four decades, liberal Hollywood repeatedly made allowances for leftist stupidities it never made for Wayne, whether it was Jane Fonda shilling for the Viet Cong (rather than simply opposing a war that was bad for America) or Vanessa Redgrave dancing around with Palestinian terrorists while waving a rifle over her head. The point, of course, is not that Hollywood or film critics or the culture were wrong about Fonda or Redgrave, but that they shortchanged Wayne -- a better actor than Jane, though not Vanessa. In the end we make allowances for the philosophical absurdities, left or right, of the Fondas and Redgraves and Waynes because their gift to us is their creativity, not their political analysis; we can embrace their art without, say, electing them president.

None of which changes the fact that Elia Kazan should not be receiving a special Oscar at the Academy Awards this year.

That Kazan should receive this award doesn't stand up to either moral scrutiny or aesthetic logic. It isn't persuasively supported either by the arguments of critics whose personal affections have gotten the better of their judgment or columnists whose ideological motivation is so transparent as to verge on intellectual bad faith. Kazan shouldn't be receiving this award for a number of reasons, having to do with the nature of what Kazan did, and the nature of the award itself.

I don't write this in rage. As I watch Kazan being honored at the Oscars this year, I'll even feel a moment's respect for what he's accomplished. While I understand director Abraham Polonsky's bitterness over the award, given what the House Un-American Activities Committee did to him 50 years ago, his recently stated opinion that someone should use the occasion to shoot Kazan was ugly and beneath him. Nor do I write with any particularly romantic view of the blacklist era or the Hollywood Ten. Obviously, during the blacklist era many in the industry were victims of a gross political injustice. But when called before the HUAC in the late 1940s and early '50s to testify about their alleged communist beliefs, most of the Ten handled the crisis not with eloquence or clearsightedness or even wit but a shrill indignation that was sanctimonious at best and hypocritical at worst, shrouding themselves in freedoms for which the ideology they believed had nothing but contempt.

I hasten to add I know few who would have necessarily handled it better. And I understand that it's easy for those of us 50 years removed to look back and comment on how others should have behaved. But in retrospect, both the principled and shrewd position would have been to have told the committee anything it wanted to know about one's own personal beliefs and activities, while drawing the line at informing on others. For the most part, of course, the Ten didn't take this position. For the most part, they hid behind the Fifth Amendment, in the process revealing their own profound lack of conviction in the First. For his part, Kazan recanted and informed, in the process denying to others that same freedom of expression he had claimed for himself, to great personal success, in his art.

In the current furor over whether Kazan should be receiving this special Oscar, there's been some obfuscation by his champions of what he did and its consequences. If Kazan had named the names of people selling nuclear secrets to the Russians, such testimony would not only have been justified but morally irresistible. If he had gone before the committee and groveled, apologizing for his own early communist activities and begging congressional forgiveness in a sob fest of mea culpas, he would deserve at least empathy, if not respect; confronted with the imminent annihilation of a career, any of us might be presumed capable of moral cowardice.

But Kazan didn't simply confess on his own behalf. He didn't give the committee the names of traitors selling atomic bombs to the Kremlin. In an atmosphere of persecution and hysteria he gave the committee the names of eight friends who had committed no crime whatsoever, and in so doing he helped destroy them. The argument advanced by some that these names were already known to the committee and that therefore Kazan's testimony was of no real significance lies somewhere between naive and ridiculous: At the time, Kazan was the most respected director in Hollywood, and the HUAC went after him precisely because his testimony was of enormous significance, because it ratified betrayal and thereby lent betrayal exactly what the HUAC wanted and needed -- the moral authority of a major liberal filmmaker who had made his reputation with movies about prejudice.

On any number of levels, what Kazan did was a disaster. But true as this is, if Kazan had made a movie in 1998 so good as to warrant a nomination for an Academy Award or, more to the point, a nomination for best director, none of the above would matter. It wouldn't matter because, leaving aside for the moment the general folly of the Oscars and who wins them, the awards are about artistic competition -- picking the "best" -- and once you muddy such competition with politics, ideology, history, even morality, artistic integrity itself is at risk. If Kazan were nominated for best director of the year and deserved the award, he should win it notwithstanding what happened half a century ago. Moreover, whatever his past political lapses, if Kazan had never before been honored by the academy, his contribution to film might indeed warrant a special award, for the same reason that Louis-Ferdinand Céline, for instance, should have won a Nobel Prize for literature despite his collaborationist history with the Nazis. Céline was a world-class 20th century writer, and that's what Nobel Prizes are for, great writers, and once you begin weeding out writers on the basis of whether they're fine human beings, you can pretty much crowd who's left into a Motel 6 service elevator. James Joyce, for you literary groupies out there who still have stars in your eyes, was a perfect asshole.

For the moment let's leave aside the possibility that Kazan isn't the great filmmaker his advocates suggest. For the moment let's leave aside that many of his most famous films, from "Pinky" to "Baby Doll" to the Oscar-winning "Gentlemen's Agreement," are now hopelessly dated. For the moment let's leave aside that even "classic" films such as "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "East of Eden" are more compendia of memorable moments than truly transcendent movies. Let's leave aside that Kazan was a more important director than a great one, and more important for his contribution to film acting than to filmmaking. Let's agree that revolutionizing film acting isn't a small thing, after all, and that if "On the Waterfront," "Viva Zapata" and "Splendor in the Grass" fall short of being truly great, they're close enough that to quibble is simply ungenerous. For the moment, let's say for the sake of argument that Kazan is indisputably in the first rank of American film directors -- and that his shelf is heart-tuggingly bare of Oscars to show for it.

In fact, this isn't remotely the case. Kazan has already won two Academy Awards for best director. This is two more than Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Charles Chaplin, Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Nicholas Ray, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese have won between them. Let me repeat that, since I know right now you're saying to yourself, "I'm sure I misunderstood what I just read." Kazan has won two more Academy Awards for directing than all those other directors -- every single one arguably Kazan's superior -- combined. In short, given how Kazan has been lavishly rewarded by the academy in the past, the problem with giving him a special Oscar is that it's special. It's not a matter of the academy correcting an oversight. It's not as though there haven't been any number of talented people over the years who never received special awards. By its nature this award is an extraordinary gesture, not a little arbitrary, finally gratuitous; and gratuitousness, by its own nature, has an agenda. Gratuitousness is overkill in service of a purpose, in order to make a point, which in these particular circumstances can only raise the question of what is the purpose and what is the point.

In the case of this particular award, the purpose and point is forgiveness. What's remarkable about this is that the academy can't forgive Kazan, because Kazan hasn't asked for forgiveness or ever acknowledged he's done anything to be forgiven for. He isn't merely unrepentant but belligerent: Speaking for him recently in response to those who have suggested Kazan use the forum of the Oscars to offer an apology, his wife told the Los Angeles Times, "Too fucking bad ... he has nothing to be contrite about." As far as anyone can tell or has told, the immorality of his actions 50 years ago hasn't inspired on his part a single instant's retrospection or contemplation, or even uneasy doubt. What it did inspire was "On the Waterfront," a powerful film that's also, in its true intentions, horseshit. Making the case for informing, it analogizes Marlon Brando's moral dilemma with Kazan's and renders it heroic. The problem with this analogy is that in the film Brando's silence costs people their lives rather than the other way around, and that when he finally does inform, it's on dangerous criminals who murder people (including his own brother), not a lot of hapless Hollywood nitwits who got their heads lodged squarely up their asses searching for Stalinist paradise.

I don't know who the academy is forgiving, for what; I doubt the academy knows. The only conclusion possible, pathetic and slightly queasy though it may be, is that the academy is somehow forgiving itself -- "because Kazan was a victim too," as though in some metaphorical fashion he died for Hollywood's sins and now Hollywood is going to make him a saint for it. Hollywood has always had trouble with its metaphors: After all, Kazan didn't die, nor did his career. After informing on people whose lives and careers were never the same again, he went right on making movies another 20 years, by all accounts growing more and more bitter at how unfairly life has treated him, even as it continues to bestow on him more wealth, more fame, more Kennedy Center honors -- everything but what self-justification and special Oscars can't bestow, and that's a conscience.

By Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson's new novel, "The Sea Came in at Midnight," will be published next spring by Bard/Avon.

MORE FROM Steve Erickson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------