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Dubious achievement

The Oscars on Sunday may actually be suspenseful, what with no Titanic juggernaut threatening to sweep the awards. But one honor that won’t be surprising is the Lifetime Achievement Award, whose recipient is announced well in advance. It’s usually a mawkish affair, with a standing ovation, laurels galore and virtual canonization bestowed on some fossil of the motion picture industry.

This year, 89-year-old director Elia Kazan will be honored. But that moment will be far from dull. A chorus of boos is predicted, as is a demonstration outside the auditorium. Some attendees plan to sit on their hands in stony contempt.

Kazan, to those whose sense of history is either hazy or non-existent, gained notoriety in the early ’50s when he cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee, headed by the red-baiting, hooch-guzzling senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. The Republican demagogue and his lackeys bullied people into naming those who were or may have been members of the Communist Party. Many writers, directors and actors stood up to McCarthy’s hectoring, but several, including Burl Ives, Jerome Robbins and Elia Kazan, broke down, ratting on their colleagues and friends.

The award provokes several questions, chief among them: Is it possible to separate art from politics? There’s no doubt that Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden and On the Waterfront are superior films, so why not concentrate on the art rather than the artist? It’s not that simple.

Other directors have received accolades even though their actions were far from virtuous. John Huston was mean-spirited. Hitchcock was said to be misogynistic. Roman Polanski had, and may still have, an unwholesome attraction to preteen girls. However, Kazan’s deeds are particularly despicable because they embrace the basest form of human conduct: betrayal. Saving your neck while watching another person hang is lily-livered and dishonorable.

Kazan spilled his guts in 1952. But what happened 47 years ago is not forgotten — nor forgiven — by many Hollywood figures. Rod Steiger, whom Kazan directed in 1954’s On the Waterfront, is a vocal critic. According to a recent report in Entertainment Weekly, Steiger claims ignorance of what Kazan had done until after filming. That’s bewildering, since news of Kazan’s actions spread faster than cold sores at a herpes camp. Shortly after testifying, Kazan took out a full-page ad in the New York Times defending his actions. Marlon Brando knew what Kazan had done, claimed to be appalled, but agreed to star in On the Waterfront anyway.

Hollywood has always been home to boutique liberals, those well-heeled actors and directors in well-appointed homes who spout liberal ideals. If push came to shove, would they really be willing to repudiate their comfortable lifestyles and adopt their convictions wholeheartedly? The question is relevant because, realistically, communism was hardly a threat in Hollywood, no matter how many actors, screenwriters and directors claimed sympathy with the hammer and sickle. Would they give up their swimming pools, fat paychecks and sprawling mansions to serve Comrade Stalin? Nyet, baby.

In his Times ad, Kazan decried communism as a "dangerous conspiracy." Maybe in some quarters, but it’s absurd to think of Hollywood as the Moscow of the West. Too, it must be remembered that in the ’50s, McCarthy was trying to uncover communist activity dating back to the ’30s, a time of profound financial hardship that inspired people of all stripes to consider other political ideologies.

According to his 1988 autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life, the director admits he was a communist for a couple of years in the ’30s, but he soon repudiated his affiliation. That’s all Kazan had to say when he was interrogated by McCarthy’s minions: that he himself once was a communist. He didn’t have to mention anyone else. Even if he had been blacklisted in Hollywood, Kazan could have turned to Broadway, where he had a thriving career.

There is no diminishing Kazan’s contributions. Ironically, he often championed the underdog and attacked discrimination in his movies. The 1949 film Pinky was one of the first to deal with racism. He addressed anti-Semitism in 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement. He sympathized with the outsider in On the Waterfron and in East of Eden, from 1955.

Kazan, in an apparent effort to elicit sympathy or to quell his festering guilt, rants in his book about being snubbed by his colleagues after his testimony. What did he expect, a ticker-tape parade? He whines about rumors that suggested he benefited from his treachery by commanding higher fees after 1952. It’s academic what amount he made. The fact remains that he was working while many of his blacklisted colleagues were unemployed. Kazan remains defiant and unapologetic to this day.

All this happened a long time ago, and Kazan is an old man. Still, what he did was cowardly. But all the catcalls and protests at the Oscars will amount to so much sound and fury. A more effective and chilling tack would be the one Kazan should have taken with McCarthy almost 50 years ago: the silent treatment.

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