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Film Director Elia Kazan to Receive Oscar, Forgiveness

Entertainment: Academy will present award to man long shunned for informing on his friends in 1950s.

January 15, 1999|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forgiveness came this week for legendary director Elia Kazan--and as befits a Hollywood story, it came with an emotional appeal by an actor.

For years, film festivals, critics associations and the American Film Institute refused to honor the 89-year-old director, one of the most celebrated figures in 20th century theater and film, because he informed on his friends during the onset of the notorious Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s.

So it came as a great surprise when Karl Malden gave an impassioned speech at a Jan. 7 board meeting of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, proposing an honorary Oscar for Kazan.

After several members seconded the nomination, the 39-member board voted overwhelmingly to give the director an honorary Oscar. The award, given in recent years to Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Donen, will be presented at the March 21 Oscar ceremony.

The decision to honor Kazan, announced earlier this week, marked a dramatic turnaround in the artistic fortunes of Kazan, who made a star out of Marlon Brando, discovered James Dean, directed the trailblazing plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and won two directing Oscars, for "Gentleman's Agreement" and "On the Waterfront."

But for many years, Kazan's achievements have been overshadowed by politics. In 1952, the director testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, informing on eight old friends from the Group Theatre, including playwright Clifford Odets and actress Paula Strasberg, who, with Kazan, had once been members of the Communist Party.

Kazan's actions provoked a whirlwind of protest that still reverberates. His detractors derailed an attempt two years ago by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. to honor him. In 1989, Kazan was denied the AFI's prestigious Life Achievement Award after an acrimonious board meeting.

Family members say that Kazan, who lives in New York, plans to travel to Los Angeles and accept the Academy Award in person. "When I spoke to Elia, I told him he better be here," said Malden, who met Kazan in 1937 when they worked in the Group Theatre. "He said he's going to get himself a new tuxedo. He was very grateful and pleased."

On Thusday, Kazan issued a statement saying, "I thank the academy for its recognition. This is my opportunity, above all, to thank the men and women who stood with me behind the camera and at its side. I couldn't have begun to do anything without their help, and they know who I'm talking about, so let's say it's their achievement as well as mine."

Whether the change of heart came from the cooling of political passions or the passage of time is hard to say. Academy President Robert Rehme said Thursday that reaction has been supportive but subdued. "We got one anonymous phone call and one thoughtful letter criticizing the decision, but otherwise the reaction, which has come from several significant names in the industry, has all been positive."

But the belated recognition for Kazan has revived discussion of several larger issues. Many believe that the film industry has been reluctant to honor Kazan not only because he betrayed his friends, but because the industry has a guilty conscience about responding to anti-communist hysteria with a blacklist that put many people out of work for years.

These issues were heatedly debated at the AFI's 1989 board meeting. At that time, a proposal to honor Kazan, supported by Charlton Heston, was rejected after several members, including producer Gale Anne Hurd, criticized the nomination. Kazan, AFI insiders say, has not been nominated since, a snub that Heston has called "an embarrassment to the AFI and to Hollywood."

AFI chairman Tom Pollock responded to the announcement of Kazan's honorary Oscar by saying: "Because the [AFI] board selects just one recipient each year, regrettably there are a number of film greats who have not received the honor, though each of them is certainly deserving. So we salute the academy for recognizing Kazan's singular achievements."

Hurd, best known as producer of the "Terminator" films, says now that she was merely taking the role of devil's advocate. "At the time, when the arts were under fire by zealots like [U.S. Sen.] Jesse Helms, I was concerned about what sort of message we were sending," she said. "But Kazan absolutely deserves an honorary Oscar. 'On the Waterfront' and 'A Streetcar Named Desire' are seminal films that were classics in their time and remain so today."

Abraham Polonsky, perhaps the best known of the surviving blacklisted screenwriters of Kazan's era, was nominated for an Oscar for "Body and Soul" the same year that Kazan won a best picture Oscar for "Gentleman's Agreement." Unlike Kazan, who went on to enjoy an illustrious career, Polonsky was unable to work under his own name for 20 years after refusing to give names in his testimony to the committee.

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