Honoring Elia Kazan



The Motion Picture Academy plans to honor the director Elia Kazan on March 21st at the Academy Awards, with an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. There's no question that Kazan has made some wonderful and influential films. "On the Waterfront," "Viva Zapata," "A Face in the Crowd," "Boomerang," "A Streetcar Named Desire" -- it's a long list and a worthy one.

But there are a number of film people who are outraged at the award. They feel that Kazan forfeited any right to the Oscar because of an episode that happened forty-seven years ago. In April of 1952, at the height of the McCarthy era, Kazan went before the House Un-American Activities Committee and informed on eight old friends and film colleagues, telling the Committee that back in the thirties they had joined the Communist Party, when he himself was a member, and that these old film friends could be considered a threat to the United States.

If you were around then, or have any sense of American history, you know that naming names, in the McCarthy era, was the kiss of death for those who were named. Kazan knew that no studio would hire them, for fear of offending the political leaders who were behind the Red scare, that they would be blacklisted from every possible kind of work in Hollywood, and in fact that some or all of them would go to jail. Why would they go to jail? It wasn't against the law to have been a Communist; it never has been. The Constitution has always protected us against prosecution for our beliefs and associations. The answer is that they, and a number of other film people, refused to declare before Congress whether they were or were not Communists, standing on their constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment not to incriminate themselves. So then of course they were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to answer, and ten of them -- the famous Hollywood Ten -- actually served time in jail. They, and many others, were blacklisted in the movie business for as much as twenty years afterward.

Now apart from the question of whether any of those Kazan named -- film and theatre writers, actors, and directors -- were in any sense a threat to the United States, there is for me the much larger moral question of whether Kazan, or anyone, should do what he did, and then pay no price for having done it.

So why is this important now? Because Kazan to this day has never even acknowledged that what he did was immoral, or had consequences, or even that the eight he named were not in fact threats to the security of this country. He destroyed the careers of eight men and their families who, let's remember, had never so much as committed a crime in their lives. They, along with many many others, including Kazen, had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, during the depression, when it seemed that the capitalist vision was destroying America and all it stood for. None of them was ever a spy, nor an espionage agent, nor certainly in any sense a traitor. None of them was even prosecuted for anything resembling a crime, because none of them had ever committed one. And yet because of Kazan's testimony before the House Committee their careers, and their lives, were destroyed.

So here's my question: Should those of us in the film business honor this man? Should we give him an Oscar? Speaking for myself, I wouldn't give him the right time.