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The 71st Academy Awards

Many Refuse to Clap as Kazan Receives Oscar

March 22, 1999|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hollywood still isn't sure whether it's ready to forgive Elia Kazan. In an appearance that was considerably less dramatic than the controversy leading up to Sunday's Academy Awards, the 89-year film titan received a mixed reaction as he took the stage to receive his honorary Oscar at the 71st annual Academy Awards ceremony.

Demonstrators had noisily protested the acclaimed director's lifetime achievement award outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion earlier in the day, urging Oscar-goers to sit on their hands during Kazan's appearance. According to eyewitnesses at the ceremony, many in the audience stood and applauded, but an almost equal number stayed seated and did not applaud.

Television cameras caught Warren Beatty, Helen Hunt and Meryl Streep standing and applauding. Steven Spielberg remained seated, although he applauded; actors Nick Nolte, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan made a point of staying in their seats and not applauding.

Noting the applause he received as he slowly walked out on stage on the arm of his wife, Frances, Kazan said, "I really like to hear that. I want to thank the Academy for its courage and generosity. I'm pleased to say what's best about them--they're damned good to work with."

Kazan gave a big hug to director Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, who introduced him, then added: "Thank you all very much. I think I can just slip away."

Producer Mark Johnson, who won an Oscar for "Rain Man" and supported Kazan's award, said, "It was a nonevent, wasn't it? Watching it on TV, you wouldn't have known there was such a big controversy. The big disappointment was that Kazan didn't address it one way or another."

Even Kazan's foes agreed that his appearance seemed anticlimactic. "I was more overwrought over [Roberto] Benigni getting the best actor award, because I didn't like the movie," said Walter Bernstein, who wrote "The Front" about his days as a blacklisted writer in the 1950s. "The only good thing is that it may have made more people aware that there once was a blacklist."

About 500 protesters gathered outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Sunday afternoon, armed with placards adorned with such slogans as "Elia Kazan: Nominated for the Benedict Arnold Award," "Don't Whitewash the Blacklist" and "Kazan--the Linda Tripp of the '50s."

Across the street, pro-Kazan protesters, numbering about 60, carried yellow signs saying "Kazan: Defender of Freedom in America" and "Hollywood Communists Should Apologize."

The Academy's decision to give Kazan an honorary Oscar had become the hottest issue in Hollywood. The gesture at first seemed to signal an end to years of wrangling over Kazan's April 10, 1952, testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Called before the committee at the height of the Red Scare, the director informed on eight of his old friends from the Group Theater who, like Kazan, had once been members of the Communist Party.

Kazan's testimony, and his refusal to apologize for it in later years, made the legendary director something of a nonperson in politically liberal Hollywood. Recognized as perhaps the leading film and theater director of his time, Kazan made a star out of Marlon Brando in the film version of "A Streetcar Named Desire," directed James Dean in "East of Eden" and gave Warren Beatty his first starring role in "Splendor in the Grass."

But in recent years, Kazan was snubbed by several prestigious Hollywood organizations, including the American Film Institute and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., both of which refused Kazan lifetime achievement awards.

A week after the Academy's decision, Academy President Robert Rehme said he had received an "overwhelming" positive reaction. But instead of signaling an end to the debate over Kazan's actions, the honorary Oscar sparked an acrimonious war of words that spread from the Hollywood trade papers to publications as far left as the Nation and as far right as the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.

A host of surviving writers and actors, who were blacklisted in the 1950s for refusing to testify before HUAC, denounced the Kazan award. Kazan defenders included a number of Hollywood actors and directors, including Warren Beatty and Nora Ephron, as well as playwright Arthur Miller and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who called the criticism of Kazan "an orgy of self-righteous frenzy."

Several fights broke out Sunday between anti- and pro-Kazan factions, prompting police to separate protesters and disperse the crowd. Police called out reinforcements and arrested one person for fighting, according to an LAPD spokesman.

Robert Lees, a screenwriter who was blacklisted in the 1950s, said, "Kazan crawled through the mud for a [big money] contract at 20th Century Fox. He should apologize."

Joan Scott, a writer who was blacklisted along with her husband, Adrian Scott, one of the Hollywood 10, said: "Like Judas, informers are never forgiven. I had to go into hiding to avoid a subpoena. Being blacklisted still affects me."

Kazan defenders were equally vociferous in support of the director. "Mr. Kazan was a moral hero," said Scott McConnell, a leader of the Ad Hoc Committee for Naming Facts, organized by the Ayn Rand Institute. "He was a brave and courageous man, and the people who should apologize are the Communists who wanted him to stay quiet about what he had witnessed."

In addition to his honorary award, Kazan won two Best Director Oscars, for "Gentleman's Agreement" in 1947 and "On the Waterfront" in 1954.

Kazan's honorary Oscar prompted a flurry of comic asides during the Oscar telecast. Oscar host Whoopi Goldberg made a veiled reference to the controversy in her opening remarks, quipping: "I thought the blacklist was me and Hattie McDaniel."

Presenting a sound effects editing award, comic Chris Rock said that he ran into Kazan and Robert De Niro backstage, joking: "You better get Kazan away from De Niro, because you know, he hates rats."

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