Saturday, February 13, 1999 Published at 10:58 GMT
Reward for the director who named names
By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook
If you listen to Academy member Bernard Gordon, a former "blacklisted screenwriter", you will find a very different view. He is outraged that the Academy is paying tribute to one of America's foremost film-makers, 89-year-old Elia Kazan, by giving him an honorary Oscar on March 2. The decision was made unanimously by the board of the Academy early in January.
Kazan is an accomplished film-maker. He created such cinematic classics as A Streetcar named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954) and East of Eden (1955). But his name will be forever linked with the dark days of the anti-Communist purges, or so-called "witch hunts" carried out by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Gordon, who says he lost studio screenwriting jobs at Universal and Warner Brothers because of the blacklist, has formed an ad hoc group, which may stage a picket outside the Academy Awards. He thinks Kazan, by collaborating with HUAC, was validating a political apparatus that in the 1950s not only destroyed careers but also suppressed dissent and created an atmosphere of fear.
The Academy does not have much sympathy with former "blacklisted" members of the Hollywood community like Gordon, who are opposed to Kazan's honorary Oscar. The president of the Academy, Robert Rehme, argues they are merely recognising Kazan's contribution as an artist, not his politics, and he sees it as time to forgive.
But not everyone thinks you can compartmentalise Kazan's art and separate it from his political actions. There have been impassioned editorials in the past few days in American newspapers which point out that Kazan was, undeniably, a great cinematic artist. But he also made a lot of art impossible by naming names and collaborating with a "witch-hunt" that did not just destroy careers but prevented hundreds of potential scripts, performances and films from coming to fruition.
The compartmentalisation defense invoked by Kazan's supporters is extremely topical. President Clinton's loyal aides have invoked the same reasoning. They maintain that the president's behaviour in the Lewinsky affair has nothing to do with his abilities to govern as commander-in-chief.
Similarly, a debate is raging in Illinois over the state's decision to bar a fully qualified lawyer from practicing law because he is an outspoken white supremacist. His defenders say his racist views have nothing to do with his abilities as a lawyer.
Kazan's case is aided by the end of the Cold War. The release of Soviet archives has shown that McCarthy, although driven by anti-Communist paranoia, may have been right, because there were far more Soviet spies operating in America than many had believed.
This historical revisionism enables Kazan's act of "naming names" to be seen as a much less egregious act. In fact, the ailing film maker remains proud of what he did and has said that he would do it again.
Personally, the Academy's embrace of Elia Kazan leaves me uncomfortable. An honorary Oscar will put Kazan in the stratosphere occupied by such legends as Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo and Orson Welles. Yes, Kazan is a great filmmaker, but he has already won two Oscars for Gentleman's Agreement and On the Waterfront. Why single out a man for honour whose public actions added to the destructive climate of fear and suppression that stifled so much creative freedom in Hollywood?
Tom Brook writes this regular entertainment column exclusively for BBC News Online.
A well-known BBC entertainment correspondent, Tom has lived in New York and travelled extensively in the US for the past 20 years.
He has reported on cinema throughout his broadcasting career - interviewing most of the top Hollywood stars and directors and attending nearly all the Oscar ceremonies in the past 15 years while keeping up with new trends in mainstream and independent cinema.