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Despite Talent, Kazan Doesn't Deserve Honorary Oscar

January 25, 1999|ALLEN GARFIELD

As an actor whose body of work in 33 years includes 70 motion pictures and 50 plays, and as a life member of the Actors Studio since 1968--where my friendship and colleagueship with director-author Elia Kazan began and has endured these last 30 years--and as someone who considers Elia to this day our greatest stage and film director ever, and who remembers warmly having him as my house guest in the 1980s here in Los Angeles, I nonetheless have to fervently voice my dissent from the "no debate/no discussion" decision of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (of which I am a 25-year voting member of the Actors Branch) to give an honorary Academy Award to Elia on Oscar night, March 21.

This is a well-intentioned but grievously wrong decision on the academy board's part--spurred initially by Karl Malden and supported by Robert Rehme (the academy's past and current president, respectively), both of whom I admire and deeply respect--for it is a sacrilege to the honor and dignity of those artists whose lives and careers were destroyed forever by Elia's chilling, opportunistic and unpardonable "naming of names" before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in April 1952--and the duplicity with which Elia gave this testimony.

Again, there is no greater stage or film director, as far as I'm concerned, than Elia Kazan. I would be there in a heartbeat for him as an actor if he ever decided to direct another play or film, even if he were at the age of 150; as long as his desire was there, I'd be there for him every step of the way. And no one more than I looks forward to applauding his milestone 90th birthday on Sept. 7. But these are not issues of honor. These are issues of talent and ambition and vision and longevity. But not honor. You simply do not give an honorary Oscar to a director--even one as great and as unrivaled as Elia Kazan--who dishonored his very own profession and his very own soul by his betrayal of his eventually blacklisted colleagues.

Elia has already won two Oscars for his unforgettable direction of "On the Waterfront" and "Gentleman's Agreement." Both were unconditionally deserved. Both were because of his talent and energy and power and vision as a film director. Not ever, once again, to be confused with or lumped with honor. There is no honor--there can never be honor--much less an honorary Oscar, for one who sells the lives and futures of his fellow man in order to advance his own special interests and ambitions and the special interests and ambitions of those politicians at the helm of such witch hunts.

An artist displays honor when he stands up to a HUAC--as the late, great actor Lionel Stander did--and not when he panders to a HUAC as Elia irrevocably chose to do, when he, perhaps more than anyone else at the time, had within his grasp the clout to defy and diffuse the HUAC scourge.

When I was driving Elia around when he was my house guest 17 years ago, I asked whether he had ever seen the astounding film "Mephisto." Since he had not, I recounted the story line of this journeyman actor who sold out his politically outspoken artist-friends to the Hitler regime in order to advance his own ambition to be the most celebrated artist of his country. There was a long silence, and then, without either of us ever literally mentioning the blacklist, I heard Elia utter, almost whisper, "Yes, that can take a toll on one."

*

I had the privilege of playing Stander nightly for two years on stage here in the award-winning, long-running West Coast premiere production of Eric Bentley's docudrama of the HUAC hearings, "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been . . . ," directed by William Devane. Then he and I were cast opposite each other on the Showtime series "The Boys." He was 80 at the time and sharp as a tack as an actor, despite 24 years of being blacklisted. I eulogized Stander just a few short years ago. Here is a man deserving of a posthumous honorary Oscar for his lifetime of achievement and for the dignity and honor he bestowed on the film industry, both on-screen as an actor and off-screen going head to head with HUAC.

I will always treasure having known Stander. Just as I deeply treasure still, and will always treasure, my coming to know Elia--I personally love the man, even idolize him, in fact. My life as an artist has been enriched by his presence and his talent. And Elia's bluntness, which I have always considered the bedrock of his charm and dynamism as a person and as an artist, prompts me in the final analysis to echo what I stated at the outset: This is simply not the time, nor do I imagine there will ever be a time, to reward past capitulation with honorary Oscars of the present.

An investigative journalist for 10 years before becoming an actor, Allen Garfield has performed in films including "The Conversation," "Nashville," "The Stunt Man," "The State of Things" and "The Candidate."

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