Oscar for Hollywood's betrayer, 50 years on

Click to follow
PLENTY OF people have never forgiven Elia Kazan for his decision to name names and save his professional skin at the height of the McCarthy era in 1952. Although celebrated for his work as one of the most influential film and theatre directors of the century, Mr Kazan has consistently been turned down for lifetime achievement awards, on the basis that he betrayed both his friends and his profession by co-operating with an anti-Communist witch hunt.

That stigma, however, seems at last to be fading. In March Mr Kazan, who is 88 and in indifferent health, will receive an honorary Oscar for a career that has included such milestones of American film as A Streetcar Named Desire, On The Waterfront and East of Eden.

The recognition, announced by the Academy this week, has not come without a fight. Since Mr Kazan made his final film, The Last Tycoon, in 1976, he has been ignored by the Academy, the American Film Institute, and lesser associations. In the end, it was an impassioned speech by the actor Karl Malden, who appeared in three of Mr Kazan's films, that tipped the Academy's opinion. "If anyone deserved this honorary award because of his talent and body of work, it was Kazan," Mr Malden said.

The professional competence of a director who brought Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams to international prominence and made stars of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty has never been in doubt.

What has long rankled with his peers, however, was his decision to co- operate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and name eight of his one-time friends as members or sympathisers of the Communist Party.

Mr Kazan's testimony was considered particularly treacherous because of his track record as a socially and politically committed artist. His behaviour was compounded by a full-page advertisement he took out in The New York Times in which he attempted to justify his behaviour and urged others to follow his example. To friends and colleagues who had seen him ruin the careers of the actors Art Smith and Morris Carnovsky, his gesture smacked of arrogance and poor taste.

Marlon Brando wept. Arthur Miller did not talk to him for 10 years. Martin Ritt, the young director who went on to make The Front, one of the few films about the anti-Communist crackdown in Hollywood, later said: "I've never been able to look Gadge [Kazan's nickname] in the eye, nor he me, because he knows that I know."

However nearly half a century after the events that so incensed Mr Kazan's circle, most people in Hollywood have forgotten the passions of the McCarthy era. "The Oscars are all about emotion, not substance, and I'm sure they'll love him," said the film writer Patrick Goldstein, who has studied Mr Kazan and the blacklist era. "Aside from the old guard, you'd be lucky to find many people these days who can even remember who Elia Kazan was."