Oscar Politics: Kazan's 1999 Honorary Oscar

The fiery politics and feverish hysteria of McCarthy era returned with a vengeance in 1998, when the Academy's Board of Governors decided unanimously to award its Honorary Oscar that year to the politically controversial, still unforgiven Elia Kazan for naming names. With two directing Oscars to his credit (for A Streetcar Named desire and On the Waterfront), Kazan's artistic record was beyond fault and everyone agreed with the Board's announcement that “Kazan is one of the most extraordinary directors of this century. Both on stage and on film, he made pronounced and lasting changes in the nature of our dramatic forms.”

However, what was also beyond dispute was his dubious code of ethics. It just happened that the Los Angeles Film Critics Association that year defeated a proposal to honor Kazan with a career Achievement award, instead honoring Abraham Polonsky, a victim of the McCarthy era, whose career suffered despite auspicious beginnings with Body and Soul, which garnered him a 1947 Original Screenplay nomination (the film was also nominated for editing and lead performance by John Garfield), followed by Force of Evil, a cult film noir.

Many people in and outside the industry still despised Kazan for his misconduct during the McCarthy era, though he himself had been a member of the communist Party and influential member of the leftist troupe, The Group Theatre. Yet it also known that in 1952, he volunteered to give names of his former friends and colleagues the HUACC. Within weeks, a major controversy erupted, first with the Village Voice caricature of Kazan on its cover, grasping a golden rodden and a caption stating, “Hollywood #1 Rat,” then editorials appeared in practically every newspaper and magazine in the country. Kazan's Honorary Oscar seemed to revive the political battles of the 1950s, showing again how divided the film industry was about this painful issue that destroyed numerous careers.

At Oscar show time, there was demonstration outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with protesters holding signs that stated “Best Supporting Snitch,” “Blacklisted Director Coulda Been Contenter (paraphrasing Brando's famous line from On the Waterfront) and “Kazan–the Linda Tripp of the 1950s,” referring to the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.

When presenters Scorsese and Robert De Niro (who appeared in Kazan's last film, The Last Tycoon) invited Kazan to the stage, about half of the audience stood up and applauded, but others, including Spielberg and Jim Carrey, clapped quietly while sitting down, and still others, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Nick Nolte, sat down with the arms folded and faces angry.

If you would like to know more about this issue, please read my book, All bout Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards(NY: Continuum International, paperback 2003).