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Jewish World Review March 9, 1999 /21 Adar 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg
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A different ‘Waterfront’

( THEY'RE STILL AFTER ELIA KAZAN. It's been half a century since he committed the unforgivable sin in Hollywood: He told the truth. Out loud. To a congressional committee. Unforgivable.

For decades the man whom many would rank among America's foremost directors has been treated as an outcast, his films snubbed by outposts of conventional leftdom like the American Film Institute and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

But this month, he's to be given the Oscar for lifetime achievement. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must have felt a pang of conscience after all these years and decided to make a gesture. It's now willing to recognize greatness even on the part of an anti-Communist. We do indeed live in revolutionary times.

The evil empire we no longer have with us, but what's left of the old popular front is still after Elia Kazan, the way true believers still can't forgive Whittaker Chambers for fingering Alger Hiss.

In ads that were to run in the Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety, some are denouncing the Academy for daring to honor one of the most talented, accomplished and, yes, honorable directors in the history of American moviemaking.

Older and tamer now, but just as nasty, a few survivors of the fellow-traveling left are calling for a discreet protest Oscar night. To quote their almost genteel ads:

"We do not wish to disrupt the awards ceremony, which is important for the industry and for many of our fellow workers. But we do ask for some minimal evidence of disapproval for the academy's insensitive and unconscionable act. Do not stand and applaud Mr. Kazan. Sit on your hands. Let audiences around the world see that there are some in Hollywood, some Americans, who do not support blacklisting, who do not support informers.''

If you thought telling the truth has become unfashionable only in this decade, consider the case of Elia Kazan. He hesitated for months before deciding to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and reveal the members of his old Communist cell.

Kazan had left the Party in 1936, when he had "had enough of regimentation, enough of being told what to think, say and do, enough of their habitual violation of the daily practices of democracy to which I was accustomed.''

Subpoenaed in January of 1952 to testify at a closed hearing of the committee, he declined to name names -- just as Whittaker Chambers had first hesitated to mention Alger Hiss' espionage. But a few months later, Elia Kazan appeared before the committee at his own invitation and spoke freely.

Worse sins were to come. After his testimony, the noted director placed an advertisement in the New York Times, explaining why he had to speak up. He called Communism a "dangerous and alien conspiracy'' -- talk about intellectual heresy! -- and argued that "liberals must speak out.''

It was a scandal that Hollywood's pinker ideologues have never gotten over. They've invested decades in romanticizing the kind of writers who followed every twist of the party line, who turned out one propaganda film after another, who rationalized Stalin's every crime ... in short, they've been determined to paint their heroes as victims, instead of the dupes they were. And they have never ceased hating Elia Kazan. Not least of all because his movies, unlike theirs, endure.

Elia Kazan had already produced Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman'' on Broadway in 1949, a landmark of the American theater. In 1951 he filmed Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Vivien Leigh in a "Streetcar Named Desire'' that has not been and may never be equaled.

It doesn't take much imagination to see the parallel between Kazan's "On the Waterfront'' in 1954 -- "A story about a man's duty to society'' -- and his own decision to defy the Communists and their friends in Hollywood's woodwork, which was fairly crawling with them at the time. The hero of "On the Waterfront'' was called an "informer,'' too, and treated like a stoolpigeon.

Name your own favorite Kazan film: "East of Eden'' with James Dean in 1955? "A Face in the Crowd'' in 1957? "Splendor in the Grass'' in 1961? My own is "America, America'' in 1963, with its roots in his family history. (Young Elia was brought to New York from Istanbul, then Constantinople, with his Greek family in 1909.) With its blinding darkness and light, no other work so invokes the immigrant's idea of America, and dream of it.

One line of that movie stays with me. The hero, who by now has abandoned family, has had to kill, has manipulated and cajoled and bargained and tricked his way to the Promised Land, who has played every base role from thief to gigolo, is asked at one point by the very voice of the Old World, the cynical and brutish cuckolded husband, just what he expects will happen to him in this wonderful New World, as if it will be any different from the corruption of the old. And the young hero answers, in all innocence, without having to think, "I will be washed clean.''

Elia Kazan was always ready to reveal himself, to abrade himself, expose his own pain and shame for no better reason than to leave behind something true. Of course he would be vilified by those who dared not admit what they were.

Yes, sometimes the results of Elia Kazan's candor were only embarrassing. But again and again, the result was a greatness other generations will be able to see as fresh and naked as the day it was filmed. And any future with eyes to see will understand something of a time when politics mattered, when loyalties had to be chosen, the fate of nations hung in the balance, and freedom triumphed.

None of this may be apparent Oscar night. Hollywood may reduce this award to another exercise in boosterism for The Industry. The object will be to avoid controversy, and therefore meaning. To quote the story in the New York Times' consistently superficial arts section: "In honoring Mr. Kazan, who has had a powerful influence on contemporary filmmakers and actors, the Academy was seeking to divorce his extraordinary career from his private life.''

As if one could separate Elia Kazan's life from his art, and his films from his history -- and ours. As if he could have made his films without living his life. As if he had only had a "career'' or exercised an "influence,'' rather than voiced his truth.

Tell me: Could Whittaker Chambers have written as powerful a book as "Witness'' without having lived it? Elia Kazan has been a witness, too, one who even now makes us see things some of us would really rather not. That's another thing those who hate him don't understand: The compulsion that truth carries with it.

I haven't watched the Academy Awards in years, but I'm planning to catch this year's Sunday night, March 21. Maybe a few of the Left Elite in the hall will be sitting on their hands when Mr. Kazan finally gets his Oscar, but all across America, America, some of us are going to stand and applaud, and let out a cheer that can be heard clear around the block.


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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate